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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

weak atheism as autobiography

Paul Newall, excerpted from An Introduction to Philosophy: the Philosophy of Religion

Not everyone believes in God. The etymological roots of the term show that atheism was originally understood as the denial of the existence of God; that is, a positive assertion. It was also historically used to denote believers in a different God. Another perspective, however, has come to prominence in more recent times according to which it is taken as a negative statement—merely an absence of belief in God. Often these two meanings are called strong and weak atheism respectively. The latter includes, say some atheists, those people who have never heard of or used the concept of God.

As it stands, weak atheism would be little more than autobiography; saying "I don't believe in God" seems much like declaring "I don't believe in true love" or — to take a more important example — "I don't believe Carlos Spencer has an equal". To make it mean more, then, weak atheists tend to understand it in terms of the burden of proof. Much like the way in which a defendant in a court case is — or is supposed to be — innocent until proven guilty, the weak atheist suggests that a person would not believe in God until a convincing argument (or arguments) has been made. After all, we wouldn't convict someone on a lack of evidence or with reason to suppose them guilty (although this statement may unfortunately appear naïve in the "modern" world), so why—asks the atheist—would we do otherwise when it comes to belief in God?

...we may criticise this approach via the idea that belief in God is properly basic. If philosophers in the reformed epistemology tradition are correct then belief requires no justification before it can be rationally presumed. If faced with a potential argument that would defeat their belief, such as the problem of evil, the believer would have to meet this challenge in order for their belief to remain justified. This defensive approach would only be required when a defeater is offered, however. Whether the atheist can maintain that the burden of proof is on the theist in the face of the challenge of reformed epistemology is the subject of much discussion.

Strong or positive atheism makes the claim that God does not exist and hence offers reasons as to why we should reject Him. These might be the problem of evil, criticisms of specific (or general) theological ideas, or claims that the concept of God is meaningless, unsupported by evidence, a psychological flaw or simply unnecessary. Notice that the failure — if we judge it that way — of arguments for the existence of God to prove it does not lead to strong atheism, just as failing to prove guilt means the defendant is presumed innocent — not that they actually are. Whether we should accept it or not depends on how convincing we find these positive arguments.

On the face of it, there is no reason why an atheist should be any more or less rational than a theist, or indeed anyone else. Nevertheless, in order to give some content to atheism other than the absence of belief discussed above, many atheists hope to view their perspective within a larger scheme of taking a skeptical and critical approach to claims about the world. Thus, they say, atheism should be characterised more by the way in which they attempt to find out about the world and not concerned solely with the issue of God. Theists, of course, can just as easily — and generally do — advocate much the same things, and some suggest that a joint effort in this regard can best marginalise those who consider it irresponsible to believe/disbelieve in God and would tell others what they should or should not believe.

6:18:00 pm