Thursday, April 18, 2013

Natural Born Skeptic: My Atheist Journey Part 7

What Kind Of Atheist Are You?

Perhaps it would be important that I define what I mean when I call myself an "atheist". I've often noticed that when I get into disagreements with theists, agnostics and even other atheists on issues related to philosophy and religion that we get caught up in disagreements on semantics. There is for example, no clear consensus on the definition of religion, and anyone who looks up the term will get about 5 or 6 different variations. I generally define religion as the belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny because this definition clearly delineates it from philosophy, politics and secular worldviews like naturalism and atheism. Others however, define religion as being any worldview or ideology that one believes to be true. It's easy to see from the wide assortment of definitions that some words can carry that if one were debating the virtues of secularism, one could get into a semantic dead end with their opponent.

So when it comes to belief in god, I don’t think it’s proper to think there are only three choices in approaching the question: theism, agnosticism, or atheism. (I’ll leave deism and pantheism out for now because I'm focusing on monotheism.) Rather, it’s much more apparent to me that belief or disbelief in god comes on a scale encompassing at least 9 different views, instead of just three rigid choices. So what I did was I developed a scale of belief that outlines strong, moderate, and weak forms of theism, agnosticism and atheism.

Strong Atheism              
There is no god!
Moderate Atheism 
There almost certainly is no god. I therefore don't believe in god. 
Weak Atheism 
The existence of god is unlikely, so I'm willing to say I don't believe in god.
Strong Agnosticism
I have no idea if god exists. It is unknowable.
Moderate Agnosticism    
There may or may not be a god, it's anyone's guess, the evidence is about equal. 
Weak Agnosticism
I'm open to the possibility that god exists, but I'm not sure myself.
Weak Theism                
The existence of god is likely, so I'm willing to say I believe in god.
Moderate Theism          
There almost certainly is a god. I therefore believe in god.
Strong Theism                
There is a god!

At the top of the scale is Strong Atheism. Strong atheists are people who assert there is no god, and that perhaps it is impossible for god to exist. Some say that this position is as unjustified as the strong theist’s is since no one can know with certainty whether or not god exists. Even Richard Dawkins considers himself a “6” on his scale of belief between 1 and 7 (1 being 100% sure god exists, and 7 being 100% sure god doesn’t exist)[i]. I have met a few strong atheists over the years cocksure that god doesn’t exist. Although none of them can empirically prove it, I suppose the absurdity of religion and contradictory nature of the concept of god lead them to such a position.

Next is Moderate Atheism. The moderate atheist is someone who doesn’t assert they know god doesn’t exist because they feel such a claim must be one taken on at least some faith, just like the theist’s. The moderate atheist simply disbelieves in god because they feel the preponderance of evidence for and against god leans overwhelmingly towards there being no god. They may also have problems understanding the coherence of god like the strong atheists but stop short of asserting god doesn’t exist because it cannot be proved. Weak Atheism is similar to the moderate atheist position although they feel that the evidence for and against god isn’t as strong as the moderate atheist. Weak atheists therefore disbelieve in god because they find the god hypothesis unlikely to be true. All three of these atheistic positions could fall under the terms nontheist or nonbeliever.

When it comes to agnosticism, Strong Agnosticism is the position whereby someone has no idea of whether god exists or not. They will often make the claim that the theist and atheist doesn’t know either and accuse both of them of taking positions on faith. The strong agnostic also generally asserts that knowledge about whether or not god exists is unknowable or unverifiable, and so we’re all forever relegated to ignorance on the matter. Moderate Agnosticism is right in the middle of the scale. It’s a person who thinks the evidence for and against god is more or less equal. They might also conclude that both atheism and theism each have their own logical conundrums that cannot ever be resolved, at least not without better evidence. Weak Agnosticism is the position of someone who’s open to the possibility that god exists, but isn’t sure. They think that the evidence for god is somewhat convincing, but not enough to make them take a position on whether or not god exists. Weak agnostics would be the easiest kinds of people to convince that god exists.

Finally we get to the ranges of theistic belief. Weak Theism is the position that the existence of god is likely given the evidence, so they’re willing to say they believe in god. The weak theist is a person most likely raised into their faith and generally is not too religious about it. They generally don’t question the existence of god too strongly and accept god’s existence as a default given their environment. They are most likely to justify god’s existence by believing that “something” must have created the world. Moderate Theism describes the person willing to believe in god because they interpret that the evidence for god is overwhelmingly scaled towards the existence of god, but they don’t assert that they know god exists and leave open the slight possibility that they’re wrong. Strong Theism is the confident assertion by people that god absolutely exists and that they know with certainty. How they know it with certainty is questionable. Many strong theists interpret their internal feeling that god exists as “knowing” god exists. They are also deeply convinced that the arguments for god are “irrefutable proofs” that god exists.

So most people who take a position about the god of monotheism can be accurately described in one level on the scale of belief that I've described above. Where do I stand? I generally consider myself a moderate atheist. I don’t say that I know or can prove god doesn't exist, I say that there’s no reason for me to believe in god given the poor state of evidence for god’s existence. All the atheist needs to do is to be able to provide a plausible natural alternative explanation about something that is commonly believed to only be explained by god to justify their doubt. The theory of evolution for example, for the first time made it possible for one to even have serious doubts about the existence of god because it provided a natural alternative to explain how we got the diversity of species. Previous to evolution, the only commonly understood explanation for extant life was that god had created all the species all at once at some time in the past. Darwin in some sense, made god redundant.

Atheism is planted by the seed of doubt, that’s why many atheists consider themselves skeptics. As the late Christopher Hitchens once said, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” 

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[i] Dawkins, Richard (2006) The God Delusion. Boston Houghton Miffin p. 74

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