I Grumble: I wish I had a nickel for every time a Christian told me that my take on the existence of God isn’t really atheism; it’s agnosticism. No, those nickels wouldn’t make me rich, but they would add up to a nice meal at a decent restaurant, and with enough change to leave a damned good tip.
On one level, this is interpersonal aggression. If someone can take your identity away (or at least that part of your identity most salient to the topic at hand), then the rest of the discussion is going to suck no matter how well you handle the particulars. It’s the sort of argument that is really about who is in charge.
…and I mean in a right-here-and-now kinda way.
Just like a husband and wife engaged in a two-day spat over which brand of butter would have been a better purchase, atheists and theists (mostly Christians) will tap away on our keyboards well into the wee hours of the morning, all over the question of just what atheism really is and who gets to call themselves an ‘atheist’. It’s almost as though we have that agreement, you know the one about never going to bed with unresolved issues, only we never do get to the make-up sex on this particular topic. We just keep jabbering at each other until the sun rises and it’s time to go to work tired. (Thanks honey!) The bottom line is what ought to be the opening stages of a larger dialogue becomes the overwhelming focus of an exhausting (and often pointless) pseudo-discussion.
On another level, the subject is certainly worth some time. The semantics are tricky here, and one will need to sort the meaningful possibilities out before proceeding to any substantive issues. And Hell, I figure I’ve encountered a genuine concern or three amidst all the bunk believers have thrown at me on this issue over the years. I know I have a few truth-in-advertizing concerns for those calling themselves Christians as well. Plus, I think I’m actually adjusting my views on this one a bit lately. So, ‘I’m going to have a go at this all-too familiar old topic and hope that the results won’t lead to any incidents of self-mutilation.
So, please take a deep breath and put away the rusty spoons!
The Basics: The problem is this, among the group of people calling themselves atheists, some of us will happily do so without presenting any reason to believe that there are no gods. If pressed on the issue, we will often claim that the burden of proof lies with the believer. For those of us taking this position, atheism represents a stance we will take in the absence of positive reason to believe in God. This approach to atheism is sometimes known as “weak atheism,” as opposed to “strong atheism,” which is generally taken to refer to a stance taken by someone prepared to argue that no gods exist at all. Some might say that a weak atheist simply doesn’t believe in any gods whereas a strong atheist says there are no gods.
And here is where Theists often cry foul. Isn’t the neutral position really that of agnosticism? And how can it be that atheists (weak or otherwise) have no burden of proof? Isn’t that unfair?
But of course atheists have a number of arguments in favor of these terms, not the least of them being an analogy to legal reasoning and/or the structure of formal debate organization wherein an affirmative position is often given the burden of proof. If someone is accused of a crime, we do not expect the defense to prove them innocent; we expect the prosecutors to prove them guilty. The problem, as weak atheists often phrase it is that you cannot prove a negative. This isn’t quite true, or even close really; many negatives can be proven true, but many cannot. If for example the original claim to be disproved is too vague, it will be difficult to formulate grounds for proving it false. Making someone responsible for proving a negative creates a double-bind of sorts, making the critic responsible for any ambiguities in the original claim.
The weak atheist position construes this debate in terms of a proof that at least one God exists. If the theist can make his case, then great he wins, but if he fails, then we go back to our default judgement that no gods exist.
But theists often reject these terms of debate, which is fair enough in itself, but often they do so by suggesting its proponents are mislabeled. It is actually a rather soft version of agnosticism that theists keep advancing as the proper alternative to the weak atheist position; effectively telling us; “if you don’t know, then leave it at that.” The shoulder-shrug version of agnosticism is not to be confused with hard agnosticism (the notion that questions about the existence of God are inherently unknowable (in short; “I don’t know, and neither do you”).
Of course soft agnosticism could be a perfectly reasonable description of the absence of affirmative belief, but so would weak atheism. In fact, the two categories could well apply at the same time. …hence the common practice of referring to oneself as an agnostic atheist.
Holy Holistics Batman! It’s worth considering that such labels go well beyond the stance one takes in a particular debate and extend to questions about behavior, values, etc. Life is full of decisions one has to make in the absence of perfect information, and this is one of them. Sooner or later we have to make decisions predicated on our answer to questions about whether or not God does exist. I will either keep the Sabbath or not; I will either say the Sinner’s Prayer with conviction, or not. If the debate over whether or not God exists ends in a stalemate the actual pace of real life decisions does NOT respect that stalemate (and from what I hear, neither will the God of Abraham). Whatever the balance of evidence, one has to make a decision. This is exactly what burdens of proof are about. Assigning a default judgement is a process of deciding what you will do if you do not know the answer to a given question.
The weak atheist position may be frustrating as Hell to theists, but it remains a perfectly reasonable approach to the issue.
Let’s Take a Step Back: There is just one thing about that last twist in the argument above; it isn’t quite a function of logic or reason, …not entirely so anyway. Rather, it is a question of how the merits of a reasoned position will map onto the practical judgements of actual life.
Default judgements lie at the intersection between reason and social interaction, and the question of who has the burden of proof in this debate is just one of the moments when the politics of religion intrudes on the intellectual exercise of reasoning about it. However much the participants may want to imagine themselves capable of resolving the issue on the merits of the case, the prospect looms large that it will still be an open case when decisions need to be made. It would be nice if someone could produce end-game proof one way or another, but the reality is that most of us will end up making our decisions about a range of relevant issues in the wake of a stalemate shaded by a little other than a sense that one side or another has a good point here and a slight advantage there. In short, the debate may never end, but sooner or later we have to declare our own take on the issue. At that moment, when we have to decide in the absence of a clear accounting, the burden of proof may well prove to be the decisive consideration.
And so we haggle about the terms of the debate even to the point of never getting to the debate itself, partly because we know this little technicality is likely to make a difference on down the road a bit. Questions about burden of proof are directly tied to larger questions about the scope of the debate itself.
Whatever else weak atheists are saying, they are also saying “let’s handle this issue one God at a time. You give me one sound case for one God as you define Her, and I’ll give up my position and go with that one God.” This position offers real advantages for both parties, not the least of them being that it bundles all the tricky semantic questions about what one means by ‘God’ into the same package and lets the Theist have first crack at resolving them. The details of the discussion will then be on her terms (or at least about her terms).
This has the advantage of putting the most salient notion of God at the forefront of the conversation, the one that someone in that conversation actually believes in. It also provides for a pretty direct test of that God, at least for those willing to willing to approach the subject by means of reason (which is admittedly a diminishing portion of the population …it having become an article of faith that religion is about faith). In short, this approach to the conversation maximizes the relevance of any conclusions drawn to the actual beliefs of the Theist involved in any particular discussion.
But what about the atheist? For him, this way of modelling the issue really tests a pretty narrow aspect of his professed stance; his ability to present a reasonable objection to one particular approach to belief in one particular god, …at least as argued by one particular person. It leaves his take on any other gods pretty much off the table altogether. And (here is where I am cutting against years of habit) I think there is some justice to the claim that this is something of a dodge.
If someone has concluded that there are no gods, or even that he sees no reason to believe in any, then even this latter version of his stance necessarily goes well beyond the subject of one debate with one believer. It’s a fair question; what about the others? How do you deal with them?
Those professing weak atheism are generally unwilling to enter onto that turf, not the least of reasons being that any attempt to produce an end-game argument on the subject will effectively make them responsible for resolving all he tricky semantic questions himself. And this is not only a problem of getting all the gods in one basket before drowning them; it’s also a question of who is really responsible for the vagaries and contradictions of religious language. If an atheist attempts to prove that all gods don’t exist; he has to settle on a definition, and he has to do it without a claim that that definition fits the real thing (since he doesn’t think there is a real thing). The mistakes of believers thus become the responsibility of the atheist, and the liar’s paradox then mocks his every move.
And yet, there remains some trace of a legitimate question here. Does the stance of even a weak atheist not go beyond the particular gods of the particular theists with whom he is talking at any given moment? Clearly, he expects to reject any given god with whom he he is confronted at any given time. If that expectation does not yield a direct argument on the topic, is there no accounting for it whatsoever? None?
At the very least we could frame the conclusion that there are no gods as an induction of sorts, derived from our past experiences debating the existence of particular gods with particular people in a variety of different conversations. At some point, one begins to form an expectation, even a tentative conclusion. The judgement is there, and one can even find ways of framing it for purposes of discussion. It’s just that the conversation gets kind of messy if you go this route.
But maybe that’s a mess more of us ought to consider getting into.
Let’s Wrap it Up (and it’s About Time!): The issue here isn’t really what kind of atheist are you; it’s what kind of conversation do you want to have? How do you prefer to frame the debate? And the truth is that most of those professing weak atheism do in fact cultivate a number of alternative approaches to the subject; they just don’t recognize them as appropriate answers to questions about the existence of God. This happens precisely because the conversation must at some point cease to be a question of metaphysics and become a question about social practice.
Ultimately, the judgement that there are no gods has less to do with the nature of the universe than the value of certain ways of talking about it. It is a judgement that god-talk never has nor ever will produce a description of a entity that is literally true. On a good day, god-talk might produce inspiring poetry, amazing architecture, profound moral thoughts, or even deeply moving personal narratives, but it will not produce a plausible case for a supernatural entity. Even the assertion of a weak atheist stance means at least this much; that one does not expect to hear talk of gods produce a believable claim about the existence of a supernatural entity. One may prefer to test that one god at a time with the Theist in the hot seat, but those of us claiming the label are certainly communicating something about our expectations regarding the subject at hand.
We can do more than that, and we actually do more than that every time we comment on the realities of religious practice; every time we describe the horrors committed in god’s name or link any poor judgement to the vagaries of religious thought. This sort of talk doesn’t always rise far above the level of gossip (or even outright idiocy), but it does point us in the right direction. At least part of the rationale for rejecting belief in God is a sense that talk about him is unlikely to produce a claim worth affirming, at least not in its most literal sense. (Some of us may find Martin Luther King Jr.’s words inspiring or even turn the radio up for a religious tune or two, but there is always some sense in which we are not quite down with the whole message.) And herein lies the moment when even a ‘weak atheist’ goes a little beyond the confrontation with any one case for God; he is pronouncing a verdict on a vast range of discourse about gods, and he is telling us that all of it (in his estimation) fails to produce a compelling case for belief in that God. In some instances the God is too vague, in others She is a contradiction, and when a clear and coherent concept does make an appearance it just doesn’t have the ring of truth to it. This is a judgement that goes beyond the test of one particular god belief, and weak atheists make these sorts of judgements on a pretty regular basis.
So, it isn’t really that we have two types of atheists here so much as two (or more) different ways of setting up a discussion with theists over the subject. One typically uses the deductive models of metaphysical reasoning to test one God at a time (preferably that of the particular believer we happen to be talking to). The other typically uses probabalistic reasoning to comment on a range of social practices associated with religious beliefs and claims. In effect, the second approach deals not with God herself so much as the language in which she is typically presented, and it deals with that subject in terms of summary judgements. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it’s a bit less rhetorically satisfying, especially when squaring off over the subject with someone who insists that some version of God is real after all.
Most of us are uncomfortable with generalizations, and I think even atheists are oddly attached to the sense of absolute truth that one expects from metaphysical discussion. When we approach the topic that way, we can often say ‘no’ with something approaching certainty. Theoretically those are the stakes, the theist too could win one for the Gipper, …or Jesus, I suppose. If these are the stakes, then yes, I think I am still inclined to opt for the weak atheist position. But I do think it is reasonable to expect some accounting for the rejection that goes beyond the god of one particular conversation; that account will of necessity turn into a form of social commentary.
About the hyponym? Turns out he’s kinda hyper.