A recent op-ed piece by Charlotte Allen in the Los Angeles Times, "Atheists: No God, No Reason, Just Whining," prompted a flurry of reactions from the atheist community. The most clever response came from Hermant Mehta, who basically said that atheists should be protected from outrageous claims such as those made by Allen (that atheists are basically boring). Mehta even compared atheists to Jews, perhaps implying that such claims are tantamount to hate speech.
Exhanges like these, especially in the blogosphere, don't really serve much of a purpose, except to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes. We need more productive conversations, such as the debate that occurred between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens on the campus of Biola University.
In the interest of stimulating productive conversations in this area, we'd like to provide some objective information about atheism and atheists. First of all, it's important to know the technical definition of atheism in the context of two other categories of belief, theism and agnosticism. These are from the Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion:
- Theism is the belief in the existence of one or more divine beings. With a few exceptions, most religions fall into this category.
- Agnosticism is the view that there is insufficient evidence for the existence or nonexistence of God. Agnosticism functions as an intellectual mid-position between theism and atheism. (The term was coined in 1869 during the Victorian debate over Western biblical faith and the scientific theories of Darwin.) Pure Buddhism and pure Confucianism, if there are such things, might be considered to fall in this category. Strictly speaking, they don't believe in a deity, but they are not incompatible with philosophies and religions that involve one or more deities. As is the trademark of all agnostics, they don't really take a position on God one way or the other.
- Atheism denies the existence of any superhuman beings. There is no form of transcendent order or meaning in the universe. According to the atheist, any notion of "god" is merely fiction created by humans that is beyond rational thinking. In practice, atheism denotes a way of life conducted without regard to any alleged superhuman reality.
You might be thinking, "Hey, that is exactly what I thought. The three possibilities boil down to God, maybe God or no God. It is as simple as that." Well, that's what we thought too. But it is not as simple as that. It turns out that not all atheists are created equal (pun intended). They categorize themselves as being either negative or positive atheists. Here is how these categories are defined:
- A Weak-Position Atheist: This person believes, for himself or herself alone, that there is no god. Maybe God really exists, but he or she hasn't been convinced of it. Other people are free to believe or disbelieve in God's existence. But weak-position atheists choose to believe in the nonexistence of God until they are convinced otherwise. (Sometimes this position is referred to as negative atheism.)
- A Strong-Position Atheist: This person believes that absolutely, positively, there is no God, and he or she believes this is a universal truth. This definition became somewhat popular among atheistic writers during the twentieth century. (Sometimes this position is referred to as positive atheism.)
The distinction between the weak-position atheist and the
strong-position atheist is an important one because it leads to the question of who carries
the burden of proof. In our next post, we'll deal with this issue. Meanwhile, we'd love to hear your questions and comments.