Saturday, January 17, 2009

Oh, Nothing...

I wish to register a complaint. About nothing. And I'm serious.

It's this "strong vs. weak atheism" business. I'm sure you have heard the terms; they purport to categorize those who "believe there is no god" and those who "hold no belief in a god", respectively. A weak atheist allegedly does not believe, but a strong atheist allegedly believes that there is no god.

Stop using these terms. Stop it. Just stop it, right now. They are worse than useless.

Atheism is the "none of the above" category; it's the "nothing for me, thanks" equivalent. A co-worker of mine, when he found out I am an atheist, asked me "which god is it you don't believe in?" He was a christian minister, and must have thought himself very clever. Of course, he would have strongly believed in the god of the Bible--and it makes sense to speak of that as a strong belief. He had no doubts (despite plenty of reason to doubt, having lost family in a flood at a bible camp!), whereas others may have a few doubts, or grave doubts.

He also, as a devout believer, would have been a strong disbeliever in, say, Zeus. Which is why the terms are silly. Belief is object-specific. My sister is a believer--does that tell you much about her? Is she Christian? Muslim? Jewish? If she is Christian, what does that tell you? Is she Catholic? Lutheran? Baptist? Not all believers are the same (duh), and each of these different belief systems is positively defined, with regard to a specific object of belief. My co-worker, as an article of faith in his god, strongly believed that there were no other gods. His disbelief in Zeus was part of a positive description of his world-view, not merely an absence of belief in Zeus. (By the way, you may also have heard the argument "ask yourself why you do not believe in all the gods you don't believe in--I just apply the same reasons to one more god than you do." While this may be correct for some, it obviously would not work for my co-worker. His reason for not believing in god X was that god Y had told him not to--this does not generalize to god Y, and is also very probably not the reason an atheist does not believe.)

An absence of belief is just that--an absence. Zero on the scale. You don't get more zero by adding exclamation points, or more zeroes after a decimal. You may have positive beliefs that are relevant--I, for instance, believe that an understanding of the psychology and neurology of belief more than adequately accounts for the reasons people believe in a god, without an actual god being required at all--but this is a separate positive belief, not a "stronger absence of belief".

Stronger and weaker are terms that are appropriate when speaking positively of a belief, but irrelevant when speaking of an absence; to use the terms is to strengthen the anti-atheist position that speaks of "atheist agenda". Catholics may have an agenda, but non-catholics? Muslims may have an agenda, but non-muslims? (note--I am not using "agenda" to mean anything other than their defining beliefs.) "None of the above" does not have an agenda.

I looked in my wallet, to take out a note—
There was someone I needed to pay.
Now, I’m used to my wallet containing just nothing,
But there’s even more nothing today

I didn’t just not have a dollar today,
I didn’t have twenty or more!
I didn’t have hundreds, I didn’t have thousands,
More nothing than ever before!

It’s not that I’m working with negative numbers,
Just zeroes, and zeroes galore!
I thought that, with zeroes, just one was enough
But I’ve zeroes today by the score!

There’s nothing—just nothing—a whole lot of nothing,
There’s nothing all over the place
Just zeroes, and zeroes, and zeroes and zeroes…
I’m lucky they take up no space.

You’d think inundation with infinite nothing
Would be a particular hell
But the thing about nothing—no matter how much—
Is that nobody really can tell.

You can doubly my nothing, it's still only nothing,
At double-or-nothing the odds
And nothing is nothing, when speaking of money
Or even believing in gods.


Matt said...

Stronger and weaker are terms that are appropriate when speaking positively of a belief, but irrelevant when speaking of an absence; to use the terms is to strengthen the anti-atheist position that speaks of "atheist agenda".

You're wrong here. That's a useful distinction to make when arguing against the "Atheism is just another faith-based religion" position. Saying "I believe there is no God" is a statement of faith, and opens up the whole "prove it" attack, leading to "Our positions are both based on faith so you can't criticize me. Nyah." Saying "I do not believe there is a god" is to make a simple statement of fact about one's mindset.

Now, I do think we need better terms than "strong" and "weak", but that's another matter entirely.

Cuttlefish said...

How can I be wrong, when you are illustrating my point? An "atheist agenda" only makes sense when atheism is a positively held faith-based position; to call this "strong atheism" is just silly, when atheism is the privative category.

I agree with you--the two positions are utterly different, and not stronger or weaker versions of one position. Using the terms may usefully distinguish between the two positions, but it is not an accurate distinction, in that one is not a stronger or weaker version of the other. Worse, the stronger-weaker phraseology is precisely what allows the "faith-based" accusation you complain of, even in the "weak atheist" category where it is utterly inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

Bringing up Zeus is instructive. The name Zeus is etymologically related to Deus Pater, to Iapetus, to Indra, and to Jupiter. The tetragrammaton, YHWH, is just another way to render this old Indo-European sky-father god.

If you believe in the Abrahamic god (whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim) by definition you believe in Zeus. Because Zeus is the same god as Jehovah. (The many references to "the Lord" in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim [cf Adonai, Allah] tradition are there to disguise this affinity.)

One of the great myths of contemporary religious belief is the idea that there is a clear dividing line between the paganism of the Classical era and Christianity. It's just not true. Pagan religious practice in the Hellenic world circa 100 AD is indistinguishable from early Christianity. God = Zeus and Jesus = Orpheus/Osiris/Adonis, and that's where it stands.

Anyway, that's my soapbox, and I'm standing on it. I used to be a highly qualified atheist -- that is, I was a strong agnostic with no community or liturgy. But in terms of political reality, I am a capital-A atheist. Religionists don't give a shit about subtle distinctions within Godlessness, just as atheists don't really care about the differences between charismatics and evangelicals.

Atheism isn't a philosophical position; it's a political declaration. And I am an atheist.

(Sorry for the lack of verse;
I'm angry now, and know no worse.
To keep my comments tight and terse
I'll gladly sacrifice the hearse
That time prepares for such as me
And soon will send for such as thee.)

Cuttlefish said...

"If you believe in the Abrahamic god (whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim) by definition you believe in Zeus." I am going to disagree, not on your point but pragmatically, because of the "positive definition" business.

Lemme 'splain. Actually, an example first. In discussing the pledge of allegiance, my father assured me that it was no big deal that my kids were expected to say "under god" even though they did not believe this. When I asked if he would feel the same if it said "under Thor", he laughed; when I asked if he would feel the same if it said "under Allah", he got the point, and said he would be uncomfortable with that.

And yes, I know (and believe me, I said so at the time), Islam and Christianity are both Abrahamic religions, so my father was more offended by another name for his own god than by a different god altogether. It matters to historians, but not so much to church members, that their gods are the same.

If people of religion W are taught that members of X, Y, or Z religion are wrong, it doesn't matter that they worship the same god. What matters is that they are given a set of rules that define membership, and sometimes those rules include believing that everybody else is wrong, evil, and/or going to hell. Just ask Northern Ireland.

And I am more than a little interested in the varieties of belief and disbelief. In part just because it is interesting; in part, because knowing helps one to know what arguments may or may not work; in part because people are people, and knowing about their belief helps me to know about mine, and yours, and others (see my "featherless biped" post).

The Ridger, FCD said...

But Hebrew/Arabic aren't IndoEuropean languages, so your argument fails at the beginning.

Plus, of course, are all people named "Howard" the same one? No. Names refer to specific entities and it doesn't matter a bit that they are the same word etymologically speaking.

Part of the problem is the very word "believe". I remember hearing a reporter say, in all seriousness, that the Amish "don't believe in helicopters". Well, hell, of course they do: they can see and touch them! What they don't believe in is the utility of helicopters, or appropriateness, or something along those lines. "They don't believe in helicopters" means "they acknowledge that helicopters are real and reject them". For many believers, when an atheist says "I don't believe in God" it's the same thing: of course you know God's real, you're just rejecting him.

Cuttlefish said...


Excellent points (I had never heard the helicopter analogy before--that explains a lot)! I remember my Catholic sis-in-law, after tragically losing her second baby, telling me that she was tempted to become an atheist because she "hated God so much". It was not the time, of course, to say "um... atheism? You're doing it wrong...". Now, thanks to your helicopter, I can see what she was doing.

And we cannot forget that for others, "Atheism" does not imply actively choosing to deny an explicit god, but something else entirely. One of my daughter's friends, when Cuttlekid told her of her (Cuttlekid's) atheism, replied in shock: "You worship Satan?!?!"

Matt said...

An "atheist agenda" only makes sense when atheism is a positively held faith-based position; to call this "strong atheism" is just silly, when atheism is the privative category.

Your point may have flown directly over my flat head. Nevermind. :)

Louis said...

Hi Cuttlefish,

1) As a regular Pharyngulite I want to say thanks for all the versatile verse you've contributed. It is of course that which has lead me here.

2) I have to agree with your post to some extent. Sorry! I know, I know, who wants agreement? It's so dull!

The terms "strong atheism" and "weak atheism" do represent two genuinely epistemologically different philosophical positions (i.e. there really is an epistemological difference between "lack of belief" and "belief of lack"). So I would disagree that the things the terms themselves describe are irrelevant (if that point is being made by anyone anywhere).

What I definitely agree with is that they are wholly inappropriate terms for those philosophical positions.

Atheism is what "weak atheism" describes i.e. a "lack of belief" and thus you're quite right that the modifiers "weak" and "strong" confuse the issue and play into the hand of our friends, the theists. Hence why I would describe myself as an "atheist", and if pushed into one of the two inappropriate categories, a "weak atheist with a long explanation about epistemology". I simply have no faith position (i.e. in the sense used above "belief") on the issue of god/gods.

I haven't found a genuinely good term yet for "strong atheism". "Antitheism" (The word is both Greek and Latin. No good will come of this!) has been proposed. Personally I prefer "anterotheism", which sets up the epistemological sense of opposition to theism based on a faith claim nicely IMO.

3) I'm no fan of the "problem of evil as a cause of atheism". Twice in your post (your coworker's and sister in law's horrendous tragedies) you mention that "[he had] plenty of reason to doubt" and, later on in a comment, that "she was tempted to become an atheist because she 'hated God so much'". I know you're not defending this, as you said: Atheism Ur doin it rong, but it is these expressions that are the most often thrown at atheists. "Why do you hate god? What tragedy must have happened in your life to make you turn away from god?" Etc ad extreme nauseum.

What many people don't get is that, contrary to another commenter's claim (erroneous in my opinion) that atheism is political (do I detect the scent of zombie Stalin?), atheism is a philosophical position occupied due to an utter lack of evidence for the thing(s) theism proposes exists. It is an epistemological stance staked on the primacy of reason and the epistemological vacuity of faith. Thus far it seems to have some decent backing! ;-)

As has been noted by better and brighter than I, we wouldn't be having this discussion so vehemently, frequently and extensively across the world if we were discussing a-jackalopism.