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An Atheism Primer

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.

 

Comments

You officially know more about atheism than I ever did during 30+ years of what I now know from your piece was "strong-position" atheism. In fact, I posit that atheists who follow all this stuff are actually looking for some kind of religion or group around which to form a community of like-minded believers. That was never my gig. I was just smarter than everyone else and content to go it on my own. If you didn't bring up religion, neither did I. If you did, though, I would battle you relentlessly. Interestingly, I never read about atheism. There really weren't mainstream books on it like there are now. Funny thing is, even without reading, my script was about the same as most other atheists. I remember the first time I spoke to an atheist about a month after my conversion. It was so weird to be on the other side of the conversation listening to my own arguments come toward me as if they'd been from a playbook. I look forward to reading more...

Joan, great insight!. Can't wait for the world to read your full story--from atheism to belief--in your forthcoming book, "Flirting With Faith." You're going to rock the world!

Thanks for discussing about atheist. I found your article interesting and intriguing. i do respect people point of view as long as nobody is being stepped down. lilash reviews

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Christianity 101 is a collection of books and digital resources by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz that talk about God in a way that encourages people to grow in their faith.