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The opposite of religion, atheism is the active belief that no god or higher being or purpose exists. The believer is called an atheist?.


As a student of religious studies in general, I must disagree with the posting above. Atheism is not the opposite of religion. I suppose that I should clarify that religion I define using social terminology, instead of theocentric ones. Religion is a group or community of people that are intituted around either a particular belief system, a person and his/her teachings (which is more precisely a cult), and/or a socio-political system of traditions, rituals, and/or law. In this way, an atheist can be religious because they can still follow a group's belief system, traditions, etc--perhaps even a person whose arguments they revere. Atheism is simply the belief that there is no god. Etymologically, it means 'without god.'
--Shaun P. McGonigal
http://www.geocities.com/shaunphilly


I concur. The opposite of atheism is merely theism--the belief that there is a God. Religion is another matter entirely. --LDC


The definition of religion of a group around a belief or a person .. is not strong enough to build the specialty of religious groups. In that sense all people are religious. Democracy, science everything would be religious institution. // I think the point is that the belief system has specific target: to create answers where humans might don't have one because the answer is beyond experience and therefore substituted by belief. Example: what is after death? what is outside experience? Who created creation? --StefanRybo


Well, many people believe that all people are religious. Not to get in a <grin> religious argument, but there are people who consider science to be religious institution, and patriotism a misguided form of religious expression.

If that is the case, then the word is totally meaningless. RK


We'd certainly be wrong to label every social institution a religion. Perhaps "Religion" should be received for socially constructed institutions which pass on beliefs about the "divine."

This is does not necessarily oppose the view that science is a religious institution, since some people define the divine simply as the ultimate substance behind the perceived universe or the origin (cause) of the world -- and naturalistic science certainly makes claims about the nature of both of those things. -- Mark Christensen


I've seen the "strong atheism" vs. "weak atheism" terminology bandied about by a lot of non-philosopher atheists (i.e., people who view atheism as a way of life), but I don't think I've ever seen it used by philosophers. Does anyone know of a philosopher who has actually drawn this distinction? --LMS

  • Many* philosophers draw this distinction, but people here are using the wrong terminology. The actual terms used are strong agnosticism and weak agnosticism. Weak agnosticism is the belief that one just cannot tell if there is or isn't a God; therefore, one suspends judgement due to lack of evidence. Strong agnosticism goes a step further, and posits that given the usual definition(s) of God, it it literally impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God, therefore one must admit that one can never reach any decision on the matter. Atheism is the position that a belief in God (or gods) is ridiculous on its face, and cannot possibly be true. RK



Since no one has seen fit to answer my question about the strong atheism vs. weak atheism distinction, and since to the best of my knowledge it isn't used in the philosophy of religion by philosophers, I've moved that part to a section about atheism as a popular movement--there, we can have discussions of more popular discussions of atheism. You'd think that, if philosophers were using it, Flew and George H. Smith would mention it, but they don't. I welcome all corrections! --LMS


Request for help: would someone post something to the following effect (or maybe just exactly the following) to PHILOSOP, the professional philosophers' mailing list?--

Subject: "Strong" and "weak" atheism
Hello!
A recent controversy on Wikipedia (a collaborative encyclopedia)--
http://www.wikipedia.com/wiki/Atheism
--needs the help of some philosophers of religion for resolution. It seems one of the resident philosophers hasn't heard the terms "strong atheism" and "weak atheism" used in the context of the philosophy of religion, and he moved text about the distinction to a section about atheism-as-a-social-movement (where the distinction is popular). Was this move correct? More generally, could you please look the article over, correct mistakes, and even possibly help expand it?
Thanks,
You

--Larry Sanger


While it isn't the philosophical perspective that we obviously need, from my layperson's perspective there are two significant differences between "weak atheism" and "agnosticism" as I understand both terms (speaking as somebody who classifies themselves as a weak atheist (though my personal position on the existence of God had largely been settled before hearing of the term):

  1. An agnostic refuses to take a position on current evidence. A weak atheist believes (with varying degrees of certainty) that on current evidence, it is unlikely there is a God.
  2. A weak atheist believes there is a possibility, however remote, of evidence demonstrating the existence of God, and additional evidence (such as the demonstration of the creation of life from non-life without divine intermention, or some convincing scientific explanation of "why the universe exists" without reference to supernatural forces) might convince them even further that there is not a God. An agnostic does not believe that such evidence can exist.

Now, perhaps the term "agnostic" is broader than the popular understanding of it, and "weak atheists" fit into the range of views described by the term as understood by philosophers. If that is the case, I would suggest that the term "agnostic" needs to be used with care throughout the rest of the wikipedia because such a broad term is likely to confuse many people.

Anyway, that's my 2c. I dunno if it's of any use to the article or not :) -- Robert Merkel


I don't see why an agnostic couldn't also say that it is unlikely that there is a God; the agnostic simply refuses to say that there is not one, or that we (can) know there is not one. I also don't see how agnosticism (in a broad sense, not Huxley's sense; see agnosticism) is inconsistent with 2. There is indeed such a broad sense in currency, although I wouldn't venture a guess as to what its currency is. I know it's not very rare. Philosophical jargon should always be used with care.  :-) --LMS


I see that four days ago, 65.26.143.xxx removed a lot of useful text from the atheism page. This is regrettable and confusing; I'm not sure why the person did this. In any case, 65.26.143.xxx, if you are reading this, please be aware that whenever large amounts of prima facie useful text are deleted from a page, some explanation on the corresponding /Talk is polite. --LMS


Difference between atheism and agnosticism is much smaller than article says. At least most atheists think so. Article is biased towards christian/theist POV. --Taw


Taw - I am not a theist, but the philosphical distinction between an athiest and an agnostist is significant. An athiest has a clearly-defined belief system. An agnostic takes a philosphically ambivalent viewpoint, a la Pascal's Wager, etc. Some agnostics actually carry out the practices associated with traditional religion, while still maintaining no opinion. I have never heard anyone claim otherwise apart from you. Show me a reference and I'll gladly back you up on this, but otherwise, leave your personal opinions at the door. - MB


I would argue that an agnostic in the original (Huxley's) sense has a more clearly defined belief - that it is impossible to know if God exists - than a "weak" atheist, who could arguably be taking the default viewpoint of not(belief(God)) [in the same sense as not(belief(Big Red Rock Eaters))] rather than belief(not(God)) (Strong atheism). However, empirical agnosticism (impossible to know if God exists at the moment) does not seem to me to be very far from weak atheism, and some people (e.g. Wendy Kaminer in Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials) decribe themselves as vacillating between weak atheism and empirical agnosticism. -- DrBob


Kirk, in making the most recent edit to the article, you ignored the discussion on this page. Please see above. --LMS


Perhaps unrelated question, but...

Where would Buddhists, Taoists, Conficionists, and other eastern philosophies fit in here? These are generally classified as religions and yet from my understanding they don't address the question of a God or Being. (I see mention of positivists, but no article describing that.) -- justfred


I'm well aware of the discussion on this page. But while we are waiting on clarifications from PHILO-types... perhaps a more literal definition is in order? -- Kirk


No, Kirk, why should we? And please quit removing useful content from this wiki. Perhaps you don't realize how rude and offensive that behavior is.

Also, I am a philo-type: Ph.D. Philosophy 2000 from Ohio State in epistemology. I taught introductory stuff about the philosophy of religion for many quarters, and am generally familiar with the field. Until I hear more about you, I think I'm probably better qualified than you are to say what does and what does not belong in this article, if it has to come down to an edit war. --LMS


Congrats on the degree.

I've not removed any useful content. I've merely removed poorly written content that could not be edited. If content of this nature should exist despite itself, then I will refrain from deleting it. -- Kirk


I'll bite, Kirk: what exactly did you think was "poorly written"? You removed a lot of content plain and simple, none of which, as far as I can tell, was particularly poorly written. There is a lot of stuff on Wikipedia that is "poorly written," and nobody removes it just because of that. Of course, you might simply have not known this.

While we're at it, if you are the person who added the following names of arguments,

  • The freewill argument for the nonexistence of God
  • Atheistic cosmological argument
  • Argument from nonbelief
  • Incompatible-properties arguments
  • Argument from evolution
  • Argument from pain and pleasure

what philosopher or writer on religion has made these arguments, and where? --Larry Sanger


All of the content I removed was, IMO, poorly written. It was convoluted and wordy. Not necessarily a bad thing if you like convoluted and wordy... I just happen to have different tastes. As I mentioned above, if this type of content is meant to exist on Wikipedia, then so-be-it.

But while we are on the subject of removing content -- my last edit included some original content that you deleted. And IMO, this content (while not perfectly written) does deserve a space in the definition.

As for the arguments that are listed... Please see that attached links for info:

  • The freewill argument for the nonexistence of God -- Link
  • Atheistic cosmological argument -- Link
  • Argument from nonbelief -- Link
  • Incompatible-properties arguments -- Link
  • Argument from evolution -- Link
  • Argument from pain and pleasure -- Link

-- Kirk


Theism is belief in a god or gods.

  • Note that most theists lack belief in many gods. The defining point is that they do believe in one or more of them.

Atheism is lack of belief in a god or gods (literally, without theism; look up the prefix a- in a dictionary).

  • Some atheists simply don't believe in any gods.
  • Some atheists believe some gods do not exist, and simply don't believe in the others.
  • Others believe that no gods exist.
  • The latter two groups obviously belong to the superset of atheists who don't believe in gods. Compare to, say, football fans. Some football fans like the Giants, some like the entire NFC, and others just like football. All are obviously included in the superset that like football.

Agnosticism is a stance that one does not/can not know anything about gods, and is separate from atheism (and theism).

  • Agnosticism addresses knowledge (or, rather, the lack thereof), (a)theism addresses belief (or the lack thereof).
  • An agnostic may be a theist or an atheist (it is possible to believe in gods and yet not think they are "knowable").

The often-heard claim that atheists must deny that gods exist is a theist fabrication useful for propoganda and, not coincidentally, is an attempt to shift the burden of proof. It is also a bifurcation (false dilemma) fallacy: "One must believe that gods exist or one must believe that gods do not exist (fur us or agin us)!" But perhaps one just doesn't believe that gods exist. Similarly, for an example, I do not believe that aliens are visiting the earth anal-probing Bubba as we speak, but I would not rule out the possibility that aliens exist and might have visited/might be visiting/might be going to visit the earth if someone presented me with credible evidence and/or reason to believe it. I just don't accept Bubba's claims because he hasn't given me any reason to do so.

Atheism is, at its core, merely the philosophical negation of theism, the refusal to accept what the atheist sees as an unsupported claim. Refutation of the claim is strictly an optional exercise for those who care to try it. :-)



So a Hindu or Neopagan is an Atheist, according to this article? --Dmerrill

Many theists would say so, yes. Of course, the Romans called the Christians "atheists", too, because they wouldn't accept the "true" Roman gods.

I would like to see the references to strong and weak atheism changed to positive and negative atheism respectively. If I recall correctly, the terms "strong" and "weak" atheism began to be popularly used in USENET (and other online) religion/theology discussion groups in the early 1990's to describe exactly the distinction between positive and negative atheism (as used by Flew and George H. Smith.) I think that the terms "strong" and "weak" should be noted as popular equivalents of the philosophical concepts of "positive" and "negative" in this context.

Additionally, I would like to see the term "god" used more generically (as opposed to "God".) I think that capitalizing "God" implies that atheism is specific to monotheistic gods. While most modern discussions about gods involve some monotheistic god, that is merely because most modern people who believe in any gods believe in one flavor of monotheistic god or another. One is not an atheist merely because one does not believe in the existence of a monotheistic god, but because one does not believe in the existence of any gods at all.

-Craig Pennington


Good call, Craig--if you're right that "strong" and "weak" are creations of online discussion groups, we should probably just omit them entirely, or maybe in a special section about Internet discussions of atheism. I've changed them to "positive" and "negative," which your sources do indicate have currency in the freethinker tradition. You make an interesting point re "positive" and "negative." This point from Smith bears out my earlier-stated suspicion, which is reflected in the article at present:

If so many atheists and some of their critics have insisted on the negative definition of atheism, why have some modern philosophers called for a positive definition of atheism -- atheism as the outright denial of God's existence? Part of the reason, I suspect, lies in the chasm separating freethinkers and academic philosophers. Most modern philosophers are totally unfamiliar with atheistic literature and so remain oblivious to the tradition of negative atheism contained in that literature.

The latter sentence certainly applies to me. --LMS


I believe that some being created our universe, as a simulation in that being's computer. The being is "supernatural" in the sense that it is not part of our universe, and not subject to our universe's laws. Does that make me a theist? --AxelBoldt


No, it just makes you sound like someone who has seen too much "The Matrix". ;Eloq.


I think "strong" and "weak" shouldn't be left out of the article entirely, since they are commonly used in online dicussions of atheism (and I've heard them used in real life a few times, but that probably says more about my circle of friends than it says about a broader popular acceptance of the terms.) I realize that they are not the standard philosophical terms, but I suspect that many of those who will read this article online will have been exposed to them. Pointing them to the terms used by philosophers would be useful.

And the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of a section on Internet discussions on atheism. By its nature, atheism is not something that motivates those who hold it to form a community (neither is generic theism, though specific theistic beliefs do so motivate people.) Barring the pugnacious American Atheists and their ilk, the average atheist did not really have any like-minded community in which to discuss and develop their world-views before the advent of online discussion fora. These fora allowed many casual atheists to discuss various aspects of atheism and philosophy, and have been, in my opinion, a very significant player in developing how many modern self-professed atheists view their atheism. --Craig