Archive for the ‘Celestial Teapot’ Category

Reasonable Atheism

February 9, 2007

Until now, most atheists have been caught in a dilemma. The dilemma revolves around how to assert one’s atheism without falling into the trap of relying on “belief”. For example, atheists are told that their failure to provide evidence that god doesn’t exist means that they are just as irrational as they claim the religious to be. The conversation often runs something like this:

“I believe in in god.”

“You’re not rational, there’s no hard evidence for god’s existence.”

“So you are an atheist?”

“That’s right, I don’t believe in god.”

“Do you have hard evidence that god doesn’t exist?”


“Ahhhh HA! You’re just the same as me!”

The dilemma comes about, at least in part, because of the misunderstanding of the words describing belief and nonbelief. This article is a suggestion on how to deal with this dilemma, so let’s start by clarifying some terms.

Most people believe the word agnostic means that someone isn’t sure about whether there’s a god or not. This is not strictly true. The word agnostic describes someone who thinks that the question of god’s existence is beyond the realm of things that humanity can know. Admittedly, an agnostic is saying that we don’t know but they are also saying that we can never know whether god exists.

The reason this clarification is important is because it gives the atheist label a little more leeway which we’ll see used below.

Atheism is a fairly controversial word. Some claim the term derives from the greek word “atheos” (roughly meaning godless or without god). Others liken it to amoral and asexual where atheism would mean the absence of theism. Regardless of the origins of the word, there are two main flavors to atheism; Strong and Weak atheism.

Strong atheism involves denying the existence of god. A Strong atheist claims that there is no god. The problem with this position is that it’s too easy to lampoon. There can’t be proof that god doesn’t exist, because a negative can’t be proven. Bertrand Russell‘s Celestial Teapot deals with this far more elegantly than I ever could. The problem with claiming to be a Strong atheist is that the position can be easily equated to belief in god without proof; Strong atheism appears to be just as irrational as religious belief. A Strong atheist appears to be saying that “I believe there is no god but I don’t have evidence for this belief.” Most atheists are proud of their commitment to requiring evidence for things they believe. The Strong atheist position runs counter to that commitment.

That brings us to Weak atheism; a position that many atheists “fall back on” because Strong atheism is dogmatic and ignores evidentiary requirements. Weak atheists claim that while they don’t believe in god, they aren’t required to believe god doesn’t exist. A Weak atheist lacks a belief in god. Weak Atheists aren’t asserting anything about the existence of god, they’re not “taking sides”. They simply don’t have a positive belief in god.

Having discussed the Weak & Strong flavors of atheism, we can now deal with my major complaint about them; They just don’t seem to actually exist. Strong atheists might exist but Weak atheists almost certainly don’t. It’s not a reasonable human position to be asked the question of god’s existence, consider it for enough time to label yourself an atheist and then simply lack belief in the premise you were asked to consider. Weak atheists adopt the label simply because they want to be considered reasonable and not dogmatic. It’s a point of pride to a lot of atheists that evidence matters to them. They believe god does not exist because they’ve considered the evidence for the god hypothesis and found it sadly and obviously lacking. Being a Strong atheist would require them to assert things without evidence of their own and it goes against their commitment to intellectual honesty. Weak & Strong atheism are caricatures of what atheists really believe and they’re the only widely used labels I’ve seen to describe atheism.

Until now. 🙂

My dear atheists, there has to be a third option, “Reasonable” Atheism. Reasonable Atheists believe that there is no god and they’re not irrational about it. They are basing their beliefs on the available evidence (and the lack thereof) and as with all reasonable beliefs, they’ll reevaluate in light of new evidence. In my opinion, Reaonable Atheism is the most common position held by atheists. I think it’s a position you’ll come to recognize frequently now that you have a label for it. I feel it more accurately describes the position of real atheists in the real world.

I deny god’s existence. I do so based on the complete lack of real evidence and the shoddy construction of claimed evidence. If, however, real evidence were to be provided at some time in the future, I’d certainly considered it and reevaluate my position. I am a reasonable atheist.