Negative Atheism and Its Discontents

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Talk with just about any self-proclaimed atheist sitting next to you on an airplane, at Starbucks, or online; if you try to critique their own position they will almost invariably say, "Ah, atheism isn't a belief that there is no God, it is simply a lack of belief in God or gods."  Or something to that effect, sometimes much less charitably.  This is often done in attempt to pin the burden of proof in the theist.  (Such a position can trace its roots to the work of Antony Flew, especially his brief - but very influential - paper, The Presumption of Atheism, in which he argued that atheism should be presupposed until evidence of God surfaces.)

In simple point of fact, this is not the traditional definition of atheism.  Further, it is rather telling that no atheist philosopher subscribes to such a definition.  All the same, it hints at a useful distinction, despite the definitional blunder.

The distinction is between what is known as positive (or "strong") atheism and negative (or "weak") atheism.  A positive atheist not only lacks belief in God but affirms that there is no God.  Therefore, the positive atheist must have justification for their lack of belief and must demonstrate that their arguments against the existence of God are compelling.  A negative atheist, on the other hand, simply lacks belief in God.  The negative atheist does not provide any arguments against the existence of God; she simply believes the arguments for the existence of God are not compelling.1

Essentially, negative atheism is more a description of one's psychological state - namely, indecision with respect to belief in the existence of God.  It should be noted that this position is indistinguishable from weak agnosticism (positive agnosticism being the traditional position that one cannot know x).  Theism and positive atheism, on the other hand, while descriptive of one's psychological state, also make ontic claims - claims about the nature of reality.  Because of this, both the theist and the positive atheist bear a burden of proof.  You can see why negative atheism has become so popular recently.

Negative atheism is in fact a reasonable position, provided one can show that all the arguments and evidence for the existence of God or - at the very least - lack force.  This I have yet to see.  But the requirements do not end here.

To be consistent, a negative atheist must not present any arguments against the existence of God as convincing, such as the problem of evil; clearly, to do so would be to admit positive atheism.  At this point one is now making a positive claim that must be defended.  This must be stressed; an opinion given in favor of any argument against the existence of God amounts to an admission of positive atheism.2  This reveals an important point: the negative atheist must withhold judgment on any argument against the existence of God.  In other words, in the mind of the negative atheist, God's in-existence must be as uncertain as God's existence.  Certainly, there may be leanings one direction or the other, but the leaning cannot amount to a decision.

The main issue, however, with negative atheism is that it is on very weak ground philosophically.  It amounts to agnosticism not only with respect to the existence of God, but of many other things.  One cannot build a complete ontology (the nature of what exists) without answering whether or not God exists.3  From this, many other questions go unanswered.  Why does anything exist?  What is the nature of existence?  Do non-material things exist?  Are morals absolute?  If so, on what are they grounded?  The questions go on.

This is not to say that negative atheism is an untenable position.  Many people go through times of uncertainty, in which evidence must be weighed carefully.  It isn't a permanent position, and resolution must be reached at some point, but it is understandable.  When it comes to the existence or in-existence of God, there is a lot to consider.

That being said, I have to say that most of those today claiming they only "lack belief" in God are in fact positive atheists when it comes down to it; they simply do not want to shoulder their own burden of proof.  This is rather disingenuous.

Here is one way in which some supposed negative atheists show their true colors.  When one brings up an argument for the existence of God, it is rejected out of hand.  The only thing that matters is physical evidence.  In other words, this person is an empiricist.  But on what grounds can a negative atheist be an empiricist?  If the existence of non-material beings is an open question, how can one assert that empirical evidence is the only way of arguing for the existence of something?  It is no use promoting the successes of science.  Science by nature only looks at the material world and material causes; it has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of anything non-material.4  But the insistence of empiricism gives us a clue that the negative atheist is not only an empiricist, but a materialist.  And materialism entails positive atheism.

Granted, it is not always the case that a negative atheist is an empiricist (thought that is fairly common these days), let alone a materialist.  This is just one example.  But if a given atheist is an empiricist, either they are also a materialist - and therefore a positive atheist in which case they must shoulder their own burden of proof - or they have no justification for their empiricism.

This post certainly isn't an exhaustive discussion of negative and positive atheism.  And there are other flavors of atheism that must be recognized.  Richard Dawkins, for example, could be considered a probabilistic atheist, in that while he thinks the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved, the evidence is that his existence is very unlikely.  That brings up somewhat of a puzzle when it comes to the nature of belief, but I hope to cover that in a later post.

There is also the claim that the term "God" is not sufficiently clear to even respond as to whether or not one believes in his existence.  Antony Flew was famous for taking this position, though he later rejected it.  And he first made the point at - of all places - C.S. Lewis' Socratic Club!  An adequate response to this also must wait till a later post, I'm afraid.  Stay tuned.

1.  In debate it is fairly common for a negative atheist to claim that all atheists simply lack belief in God.  It is obvious that this is not true, given the distinction between negative and positive atheism.  And positive atheists understandably resist such characterizations made by negative atheists.  However, today positive atheists are certainly in the minority.
2.  This is not to say that a negative atheist cannot use, say, the problem of evil to cast doubt on theism, only that they must not assert that the argument is compelling.
3.  It is possible to hold to a purely pragmatic ontology, claiming neither that it is true nor that it is necessarily consistent, but only that it is useful.  But this is a weak position, philosophically.
4.  Edward Feser in a blog post give a good analogy for this.  His point is that science doesn't prove materialism; my point is simply that its use doesn't entail empiricism. 
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