Strengths and weaknesses of Negative Atheism

Negative atheism, also called “soft atheism,” “weak atheism,” or just “atheism” refers to the state of lacking belief in any god/s whatsoever. You might say it is unbelief in God whereas theism is belief in God. I previously posted on this subject before, quibbling over the definition of atheism. In short, I argued there that “atheism” does not classically mean this “negative” sort of atheism, but rather the “positive” sort which makes a claim about reality, namely, that no God exists. Without rehashing that whole case, these two brands of atheism can be contrasted as such.

Positive atheism–belief in no God. Makes a claim about (extra-mental) reality. Carries its own respective burden of proof. It’s reference point is the world/cosmos/reality. Classical distinct from all forms of agnosticism.
Negative atheism–no belief in God. Makes a claim about psychology. Does not carry its own burden of proof. It’s reference point is one’s own mind/belief system. Practically indistinguishable from agnosticism.

For clarification, agnosticism is the position of having no knowledge of God, or, more specifically, the belief that knowledge of God is either impossible (hard/strong agnosticism) or it is possible but not yet actual (soft/weak agnosticism). Agnosticism has sometimes been contrasted with negative atheism by pointing out that agnosticism refers to knowledge and negative atheism refers to belief, but that may be a distinction without a difference since all knowledge is some kind of true belief (i.e., warranted true belief, justified true belief, etc.). Belief an knowledge are coextensive regarding our own cognitive part in the process. A belief is knowledge if it’s true and justified/warranted. Knowledge is always a state of belief. The human part in both of these is identical, both are states of belief. Agnostics don’t believe in a God, and neither do negative atheists. Agnostics don’t know there is a God, and neither do negative atheists. Negative atheism entails agnosticism, and agnosticism entails negative atheism. One cannot be one without the other since all of agnosticism’s “non-belief” is equally a state of “no-knowledge” of God (existing). It is literally impossible to know that God exists and yet refrain from believing that God exists. It is equally impossible to lack belief in God without also lacking knowledge of God (existing).

Returning to the issue of negative versus positive atheism, I’ll suspend the argument, for the moment, that the term “atheism” most properly fits just one of these (positive versus negative) and, instead, allow that both of these ideas are currently expressed under the broad domain of “atheism” today. Many self-proclaimed atheists do in fact mean either or both of these when they say “atheism.”

Why then would a person choose negative atheism over positive atheism?

1) Less to defend
In refraining from any claim about extra-mental reality, one does not have to defend any truth claims about anything outside of his own psychology. If he, in fact, does not believe in any God then he is an atheist. It is directly and immediately known by that particular atheist that his atheism is true. He claims to not believe in God, and, in fact, he does not believe in God. No reference is made to the outside world and so his view is virtually beyond dispute. To contest his claim someone else would need to somehow knows his mind better than he does, so he could honestly say, “Ugh uh, you do too believe in God!” Negative atheism is falsifiable but not by any classical arguments for God’s existence, or through Intelligent Design, or fulfilled prophecy, etc. If it is falsified it is through lie detection; the person claims he does not believe in God when in fact he does believe in God.

2) Humility
It has been argued that one would have to know everything there is to know before one can rightly claim to know that God does not exist. Atheism, in that case, would be a universally negative claim about reality–asserting that in all of reality there is no God. The negative/soft/weak atheist may have such humility that that he is averse to that bold position. Candidly, none of us human beings knows everything. And universal negatives (i.e., “No God exists [in all of reality]”), with that size and scope, are notoriously hard to prove. By holding to negative atheism one can don the modest position that God’s existence or non-existence is still uncertain. Remaining agnostic on the issue, the individual makes no knowledge claim that either God exists or God does not exist but simply refrains from belief in God. Sure, there may be a tactical advantage here–having less to defend for the sake of one’s own intellectual/rational integrity. But there is also a bit of humility here since one is allowing that there is more to be learned before he can rightly claim to know (justifiably believe as true) that God exists or that God does not exist. Perhaps the individual is waiting for the Encode Project to advance genetic studies a little further, or maybe he’s waiting for neuropsychologists to find the “god nodule.” Or maybe he thinks God’s existence is almost certain, but lacking certainty he refrains from intellectual assent. Whatever the reason, negative atheism can carry a tone of humility admitting that we don’t know everything.

3) Problems with Positive Atheism
One may opt for negative atheism because positive atheism seems problematic. Obviously, the negative atheist does not think theists (*I’m referring to those who believe in any God/s whatsoever) have made their case. But they are also implicitly admitting that positive atheists haven’t made their case either. It could be that God’s existence seems highly unlikely, but still plausible if, for example, a few distinct prophecies from the ancient world are vindicated with further study. Or, a person may have such a compelling personal experience to where he or she is epistemically justified in God-belief. That might not be good public evidence, but perhaps it’s minimally adequate private evidence. A person may grant that God’s existence is a coherent, clear, and plausible belief, but there just isn’t yet enough of the extraordinary evidence to merit that extraordinary belief. In this case, the positive atheists might not have defended their case well enough to win over the reasonably-minded negative atheists (assuming negative atheists are reasonable).

So there are some sensible reasons to choose negative atheism over positive atheism. There are still some weaknesses to negative atheism, some of them quite troubling.

1) Negative Atheism Counteracts Positive Atheism
As noted above, negative atheism implicitly claims that positive atheists haven’t made their case. The problem here can be practical, atheists may be a growing minority but they are still not such a populace as to find it an expedient luxury to revel in disparate diversity. Those atheists who want a stronger voice for their cause and want greater respect in the marketplace of ideas might not like the idea of divvying up their influence among the “Nones” (i.e., those who claim no religion for themselves). In my experience, most negative atheists tend to think (generally) well of positive atheism and positive atheists themselves. Yet by refraining from positive atheism they are implicitly asserting that there just isn’t enough evidence in front of them to merit denying God’s existence. Refraining from belief is epistemically less expensive than believing something. We are all the time refraining from belief about things, for example, lacking an opinion on 17th century cooking techniques with vinegar. We just don’t know, don’t care to know, or have no informed opinion on the matter. We neither believe, nor disbelieve much of anything in that area. And frankly, most all potential knowledge there is in the world today is beyond our current grasp so that we are “negative atheists” (metaphorically speaking) on almost all of it. To (reasonably) believe something is not the case (akin to positive atheism), one needs a reason, and that entails at least some informed opinion or knowledge about that matter. Negative atheism suggests that positive atheists have no given sufficient reasons to justify that stronger step of believing that reality lacks God.

2) Negative Atheism still carries an implicit burden of proof
In my experience with negative atheists, they have often claimed to have no burden of proof and I, as a theist, am challenged to shoulder my burden of proof for theism. I gladly accept that challenge but also retort that negative atheists seem to be carrying a burden of proof as well. Here’s how. Is negative atheism reasonable? If yes, then that means it has it’s respective reasons so that, ideally, whoever is a like-minded, reasonable person, he or she should also be a negative atheist upon seeing the same sorts of evidence and experiences for themselves. If negative atheism is not reasonable, then, of course, reasonable people do not have sufficient reason to agree with it. I have yet to find a negative atheist who thinks his or her brand of atheism is unreasonable, unjustified, or somehow a mere “faith” position. Instead, I find negative atheists to be quite courageous in asserting that they have winsome and compelling evidence in their favor suggesting they are vindicated in their non-belief. Strictly speaking, negative atheism makes no claim about extra-mental reality and is only a claim about one’s own personal psychology. In that sense, it has no public burden of proof. But the implicit claim that, “Negative atheism is reasonable” still carries a burden of proof. If it is not reasonable then I literally have insufficient reasons to agree with it.

3) Negative Atheism is Compatible With God’s existence.
An odd implication of negative atheism that it can be true even if God exists. Negative atheism, remember, makes no claims about extra-mental reality but is instead entirely a claim about one’s own psychology. Joe claims for himself, “I lack belief in a God” and to the extent that he does in fact lack that belief then that atheistic claim is true–even if God exists. This isn’t a metaphysical or sophisticated problem, but it is a bit confusing for the English language. It’s tough to communicate well when a person says, “I’m an atheist, and my atheism is true, and God exists.”. This position would make Antony Flew, the original negative atheist (who coined the term), roll over in his grave. Before becoming one of the most famous converts (to deism) in history, Flew was a celebrated atheist who dove deep into the arguments for and against God and though he admitted that classical atheism is the positive sort which claims that “No God exists” he considered himself a negative atheist, largely equivalent to agnosticism (see his respective definitions of “atheism” and “agnosticism” in his “Dictionary of Philosophy”). He did not revert simply to agnosticism however because, and he would admit this, he still believed there was probably no God. He had an underlying positive atheism. But he employed negative atheism for public debate, writing, and thought experiments (in his realm of philosophy and occasionally parapsychology–he was a “debunker”). This implication, however, shows that negative atheism is conceptually confusing unless one’s negative atheism were pretty much “storefront” to a deeper abiding commitment to positive/classical atheism.

4) A clearer term for this category already exists
Agnosticism was coined in the late 19th century (1889) by Thomas Huxley to describe his lack of knowledge regarding God’s existence or non-existence. In many ways he allied with atheists and other “nones” but he had to forge a new term to describe his particular brand of non-theism. Before Huxley, there was a wide range of skeptics who likely overlapped significantly or entirely with his agnosticsm, before that term was even coined. Skepticism was a general term for “non-belief,” and that could be applied to anyone who refrained from believing any claim. A person could be skeptical of math doubting the reality, existence, or coherence of mathematical concepts. One could be skeptical of one’s senses, distrusting the existence or reliability of sense perception. A person could be skeptical of morality, doubting whether any moral claims can be known as true. One could be partially or totally skeptical (at least in theory). One can employ skepticism as an overall disposition (Cartesian skepticism) or as a temporary method (methodological skepticism) Regarding God belief, a person would be theologically skeptical if he or she refrained from God-belief. The term/phrase “Theological skepticism” already described the entire domain of negative atheism, long before people ever started calling themselves “negative atheists,” and it did so without any confusing consequences like, “God exists and my brand of atheism is true.” The self-proclaimed “atheist” who means “negative atheism” would do well to describe himself instead as “theological skeptic” or, if underneath it all he really does believe there’s no God, he could also call himself a “positive atheist” or, just “atheist” since “atheist” classically means belief that there’s no God distrusting all claims of God’s existence.

So we see that negative atheism is not a simple glowing option, it has some drawbacks. Of course, it may turn out that theism or positive atheism have the better case and so negative atheism would be unjustified either for being contradicted by theistic evidences or for being too meek and mild in light of atheistic evidences. Either way, negative atheism can be a conceptual middle ground for those unsure of either theism or positive atheism, but they’d do well to call themselves “theological skeptics” as that is a clearer phrase to describe one’s views on God, and because they might otherwise come across as duplicitous–wanting the sexy rebellious implications of “atheism” but without the intellectual risks involved therein (i.e., having a burden of proof).

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