Varieties of Atheism

Strong v Weak Atheism

Strong atheism (also known as positive atheism and hard atheism) is atheism that asserts that no deities exist. (1)

Weak atheism (aka negative atheism and soft atheism) is atheism where a person does not believe in the existence of any deities and does not explicitly assert that there are none. (1)

Implicit v Explicit Atheism

Strong and weak atheism are distinct from the categories of implicit and explicit atheism, also relating to whether an individual holds a specific view that gods do not exist. (1)

Strong explicit atheists assert that it is false that any deities exist. Weak explicit atheists assert they do not believe any deities exist, but do not assert it is true that no deity exists. (1)

All implicit atheists are included in the weak atheism categorization. Those who do not believe any deities exist, but do not assert such non-belief, are included among implicit atheists who include: children and adults who have never heard of deities; people who have heard of deities but have never given the idea any considerable thought; and those agnostics who suspend belief about deities, but do not reject such belief. (1)

 

An Euler diagram showing the relationship between weak/strong atheism and implicit/explicit atheism. Strong atheism is always explicit, and implicit atheism is always weak. Explicit atheism can be either weak or strong.
Some varieties of atheism. In purple on right: Explicit “positive” / “strong” / “hard” atheists assert that “At least one deity exists” is false. In blue on right: Explicit “negative” / “weak” / “soft” atheists do not assert the above but reject or eschew a belief that any deities exist. In blue on left: Implicit “negative” / “weak” / “soft” atheists include agnostics (and infants or babies) who do not believe that a deity or deities exist and who have not explicitly rejected or eschewed such a belief. Note: Areas in the diagram are not meant to indicate relative numbers of people.

An Euler diagram (above) showing the relationship between weak/strong atheism and implicit/explicit atheism. Strong atheism is always explicit, and implicit atheism is always weak. Explicit atheism can be either weak or strong. (2)

Richard Dawkins – Spectrum of Atheist Probabilities

Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, describes people for whom the probability of the existence of God is between “very high” and “very low” as “agnostic” and reserves the term “strong atheist” for those who claim to know there is no God. (1) He categorizes himself as a “de facto atheist” but not a “strong atheist” on this scale. (1,3) Richard Dawkins posits that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other.” He goes on to propose a continuous “spectrum of probabilities” between two extremes of opposite certainty, which can be represented by seven “milestones”. Dawkins suggests definitive statements to summarize one’s place along the spectrum of theistic probability. (4) These milestones are:

1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
2. De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”

Dawkins argues that while there appear to be plenty of individuals that would place themselves as “1” due to the strictness of religious doctrine against doubt, most atheists do not consider themselves “7” because atheism arises from a lack of evidence and evidence can always change a thinking person’s mind. In ‘The God Delusion’, Dawkins self-identified as a ‘6’ (3), though when interviewed by Bill Maher (5) and later by Anthony Kenny (6), he suggested ‘6.9’ to be more accurate. (4)

References

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_and_positive_atheism (accessed 6th December 2014)

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_and_positive_atheism#mediaviewer/File:AtheismImplicitExplicit3.svg
(accessed 6th December 2014)

(3) The God Delusion, pp. 50–51 (accessed 6th December 2014)

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability (accessed 6th December 2014)

(5) “Richard Dawkins on Bill Maher”. YouTube. 2008-04-11. (accessed 6th December 2014)

(6) Bingham, John (February 24, 2012). “Richard Dawkins: I can’t be sure God does not exist”. The Telegraph. (accessed 6th December 2014)

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