Negative Atheism as Evidence Against Positive Atheism

Negative atheism, the abstention from God-belief, is a softened/humbler position than positive atheism which rejects God belief. the latter is claim about reality, the former is a stance in psychology. And, may I suggest, negative atheism as a position is an ATTACK on positive atheism.

Negative atheism essentially says to the positive atheist–you have not given sufficient proof against God’s existence. I cannot ascribe to positive atheism in good conscience/mind since the evidence is too inconclusive to warrant affirming the claim that “God does not exist.”

10 thoughts on “Negative Atheism as Evidence Against Positive Atheism

  1. Yes the positive atheist makes a claim that there is no god.

    Positive atheism requires evidence in support and takes on the burden of proof. All positive atheists are also negative atheists, so I fail to see how this is an attack. Saying so is like telling someone who is criminally accused that because he has taken the “not guilty” position, he is attacking the “innocent” position. No, they may be innocent, but only need to prove that they are less than guilty to be acquitted. I may believe there is no god, but I only need to demonstrate that the evidence for a god is insufficient, to defeat theist claims.

    Should a positive atheist fail to prove that there is no god, it does NOT follow that a god exists.

  2. I’m not sure I understand what you are getting at because your explanation seems like it hinges on a trivial difference irrelevant to my point. If you are merely refraining from god-belief then you are a negative atheist and, by order of reason, you are implying that positive atheism has not demonstrated sufficient evidence to merit your affirmation of that position. Yes the positive atheist does not have God-belief, but then he is a positive atheist, so the term “negative atheist” does not describe well. He does not “lack” theism, he rejects theism. He has a commited disposition on the non-existence of God. He AFFIRMS the nonexistence of God. Do you or do you not think that “no God exists?” And even if you could show that that the two categories are not mutually exclusive one can still ask, “if you are a positive atheist why bother with negative atheism too, except as a word-game to try to avoid having to bear the burden of proof to show that your position is rational at base?” And “if you are negative atheist only, then why do you refrain from positive atheism?”

    BTW, I have had a LONG argument over the default meaning of atheism. Positive atheism has been the standard meaning for atheism across the centuries with only a minority tradition of it springing up recently, largely in ignorance of the etymology of the term, the history of its usage, and the metaphysical/epistemic categories at work in it. Hence, there are atheists who are negative atheists who are really agnostics who feign the authority/clout of “atheism”–not even knowing where their word came from. Atheists don’t usually know their own history in that regard.

  3. I have thought about this for a long time too. I agree that positive atheism is how the term was historically used and is generally understood today. It also has an archaic meaning in some dictionaries as “immoral”.

    My feeling is that we should not worry too much about the terms and labels, but have the discussion based on the distinction we care about.

    I think the relevant distinction here is the answer to the question: do you take the position that a god exists? We clearly have all theists on the affirmative side, the rest are what I call atheists.

    Among the set of people in the set who do not take the position that a god exists are some who would go further. You are right that negative atheists who have considered positive atheism and rejected it, reject it. I think saying “attack” is a little strong.

    I made a video about this kind of thing:

    1. I’m glad you’ve thought through this, and I’m also glad that you seem to appreciate the classic sense of the term.

      Your third paragraph however elaborates negative atheism, not atheism per se. Etymologically the term “atheism” translates the ancient greek “atheos”, where the alpha privative negates theos, hence it is “anti-God” with only a tertiary meaning of “lack of God.” Hence the primary meanings for atheos are “[positive] atheism” and “godless,” the latter has a connotation of “immoral” as you pointed out. But in terms of word history, “godless” was not so much an expression of negative atheism as it was a slanderous monicker indicating one who lives without respect for law (i.e.: ancient greeks and romans saw the civil law as divine commands so to be godless is to be anti-roman or anti-greek barbarians). Either way, the term “atheism” today does not mean “not-theism”–i.e.: any position of lacking theistic belief. That is theological skepticism or, otherwise, a brand of agnosticism.

      For atheism and theism, the question is not whether one has God-belief–it was not a question of belief or non-belief, but a question of affirmation and negation. That is, whether one affirms or rejects the existence of God. This is a subtle difference, but it points out how our discussion is over Theism vs. Atheism, not Dogmatism vs. Skepticism. Negative atheism is a revamped term for Theological Skepticism. There has always been a term to describe what is now known as “negative atheism” so treating “atheism” as if its default meaning is “negative atheism” or even employing the term “negative atheism” term is superfluous at best and disingenuous at worst. Negative atheism is simply theological skepticism, and, as a brand of skepticism, it has its history not in the term “atheism” but in the body of practices located under “skepticism” (pyrrhic, academic, etc.). And by affiliating with skepticism–whether one knows it or not–one absorbs the mixed history of skepticism, namely the problems of universal skepticism. Any line delimiting skepticism is arbitrary if skepticism is deemed the default method of choice.

      Long story short, you are not an atheist unless you retain your burden of proof in claiming “No God exists.” You are a theological skeptic if you simply “lack God-belief.”

  4. “Your third paragraph however elaborates negative atheism, not atheism per se” Well, the whole point is not to get bogged down in terminology and etymology. If we agree that the relevant distinction for the discussion of theism is between people who have, and who lack, a belief in god that is great.

    Would “theist” and “non-theist” work?

    As far as I can tell the only reason for this discussion is the burden of proof. It is pretty easy to clear up by asking “Do you believe no go exists?” If the answer is “yes”, this is a positive atheist who bears a burden. Otherwise the theist bears the burden.

    You seem to be trying to get “atheists” to admit they are “positive atheists” and therefor accept the burden. I don’t think any positive atheist would deny the burden, but we would also not accept that losing that debate means the theist has proven a god exists.

  5. I think “non-theist” is a great descriptor. I think there are three-options for most any claim: pro, con, and abstention. in this case, “theist, atheist, and non-theist.” The theological skeptic lacks a belief in God or a disbelief in God, staying non-committal either way. He may be skeptical for justified or unjustified reasons, hence he is not necessarily rational/reasonable unless he has sufficient reasons for abstaining from God-belief.

    I do agree that the theist bears a burden of proof. The skeptic does not, but neither does his position demand credence or status as “rational” unless his abstention from belief or abstention from disbelief is somehow rational. In the absence of any evidence, prima facia, ostensive, demonstrated, argumentative, conclusive, etc.–his skepticism can become more reasonable or less reasonable in light of the evidence. If he was standing in front of a burning bush that was not being consumed, and that bush was speaking to him, he’d be less justified in affirming strict naturalism, especially if he happened to know that there were no hallucinatory fumes/drugs, or hynoptic forces, that could have generated this scene.

    My theistic case is a modest one. I argue that the fact of the big bang, appearance of design in nature, objectively binding moral values, and the testimonial evidence of billions of people are precisely what we would expect given a theistic supernature–hence the theological skeptic is not justified/rational in his non-belief nor the atheist in his disbelief. These evidences do not prove anything conclusively, but they do amount to a strong base of ostensive evidence for supernaturalism such that naturalism is not obvious nor is it the rational default.

    I also admit that discrediting atheism or theological skepticism does not amount to a positive case for God’s existence. It is one thing to defeat one’s opponent, it is another task entirely to erect one’s own independent claim. Side A could win. Side B could win. Or there could be a tie–in which case, both sides fail to make their case.

  6. You get into a number of things here which are better suited for another time and place. The only thing I really agree with is in discussing the existence of a deity is theists on one side, and everyone else on the other.

    Your case for theism is by no means modest.

    Instead of doing this in random comments, how about a written debate?

    1. My “modest” case for theism is not in the evidences cited but in the conclusion drawn: “[Evidences X, Y, and Z] are precisely what we would expect given a theistic supernature.” I argue not for logically deductive certainty, nor do I propose experiential/subjective certainty, nor do I even try to say that atheism itself is irrational or that atheists in general or unreasonable. No, I think the opposite so I do not make those bold/outlandish claims. Instead, when I’m called upon to make a case for God’s existence I usually employ an abductive/inference-to-the-best-explanation method. By this method it is the better explanation that 6.5 billion people believing in God are more like right than the 0.5 billion who do not. What looks like design is probably design. What looks like minds are probably minds. If minds have only come from other minds as far as we’ve encountered then, then we’ve no reason to think they can originate from non-mind. Free-will seems irreducible and therefore is likely irreducible. These are initial credibility cases, and they can be strengthened with added details or weakened with undermining evidence but taken together, in the absence of superior counterevidence, they constitute a positive case for God’s existence which the atheist has to show is improbable. It is not enough to say that it is POSSIBLE that God doesn’t exist. Most anything’s possible, but that doesnt prove anything except to the most undisciplined skeptic. The atheist instead must show that it is PROBABLE that God doesn’t exist. The God-theory can and does account for these kinds of phenomena, and has proven so persuasive to billions of people–many of whom are well educated, critical, skeptical, self-aware, realistic, etc. I do not have enough confidence in my own knowledge, much less in that of some atheist I don’t really know, to think that I can safely dismiss all those believers assuming that in this regard I’m smarter than they are. I would need to outstanding confirmatory evidence against them before I could feel safe in dismissing them. But I would NOT dismiss them by method, as if they had no initial credibility. I grant that they have initial credibility, just as there is initial credibility in the denial of the resurrection. 10 billion people so far have died and stayed dead. So in affirming the resurrection, for example, I carry that burden of proof. I accept that. It’s fair. It’s part of how these things work.

  7. This kind of convoluted response is what I wanted to avoid. I’d rather not keep re-hashing this in comments. Let’s have a proper debate.

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