American Atheists And
The 'Strong' Definition
I apologize if you've fielded this question before, but I was wondering what sort of discussions PAM has had with American Atheists about the definition of atheism, and what sort of effect their use of the word "atheism" has on what PAM does.
I've several times tried to inquire why AA's site seems to use a definition of "atheism" that takes it as a positive philosophy (There are no gods, atheists believe in themselves, etc.), with nary even a reference to the philosophical issues surrounding the alternative "weak" definition. I've so far only received one response to my queries to them from Ellen Johnson, and her position seems to be that she feels that using this definition is some sort of concession to theists who simply will not stop until all are converted: a concession which she refuses to let her organization make because she doesn't care what theists think about it (it was not entirely clear if she cared or not what other atheists thought about it either).
Personally, this all sort of made me feel excluded from a group that would otherwise have my support, let alone defining as something else entirely all simple non-believers. When someone takes up a proactive ethic over the issue of atheism, as they understand it (the weak definition for me, the lack of a position, to which other values, like honesty or even an interest in religion at all, are aspects of me, not my atheism), what do you think is the importance of arguing with other "atheists" over what atheism is? Is that wasting time that could be better spent on other issues, like protecting political rights?
From my far ranging discussions with theists and atheists alike, I do feel that a significant portion of misunderstanding and friction between theists and atheists comes from the misunderstanding surrounding the negative definition. It is often a difficult idea to get across, especially to someone not used to dealing with privative definitions -- not to mention when that person is someone who thinks the subject of god is all-important.
But I do feel that my explaining of my views to whoever asks is greatly hindered, not simply by theists who wish to define "atheism" for us, but also by other atheists who are unaware that one can simply not believe (as opposed to having some sort of anti-belief) or are simply not careful in explaining what atheism is (it's always easier to scream "There Is No God" than taking the time to point out that it is the god claims that are failures: and we have nothing else before us to deal with). I have several times gotten, from friends and others, "I understand your position (and they do), but you are not an atheist," which is endlessly frustrating, even though in the long run it doesn't much matter what I call my position.
So I do feel some concern with AA's definition of "atheism" (for instance, their list of all the things an atheist "is," totally negating the core concept of a negative definition), but I also worry: at what point does my arguing for a particular view with groups like AA violate my long-run desire for everyone to just be left the hell alone, for people to stop beating down each others' doors to convert them to a different viewpoint? Would my efforts to lobby AA to at least acknowledge the "weak" definition be just as annoying as theist efforts to lobby them to accept Jesus?
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Fred Dantor"
Subject: Re: American Atheists and the Strong Definition
Date: Tuesday, May 29, 2001 8:21 PM
The discussions I had with AA's current president, Ellen Johnson, have revolved around whether the words god and atheist ought to be capitalized. Johnson said that god ought only be capitalized when it begins a sentence. I say that if it is used as the name of a fictitious character, such as Rumplestiltskin, it ought to be capitalized, and to go further than that serves only to rub it in. She says atheist ought always to be capitalized, and I say that we ought to lobby the dictionaries to allow the capitalization of atheist just as they allow the capitalization of Evangelical when referring to a group or a person, but to leave it lowercase when not specifically referring to a people group (such as when using it as a simple adjective). I fell short of mentioning that I thought her view to be somewhat of a double-standard.
I am prone to placing a or your in front of the word god to justify leaving it in lowercase whenever I can (though I always mockingly capitalize the personal pronouns such as He and Him when referring to a monotheistic deity, even though this practice is outdated). And I seldom if ever capitalize atheism or atheist to reflect my view that atheism, unlike Evangelicalism, is really no big deal -- nothing to take oneself too seriously about, that's for sure.
I also had discussions with Conrad Goeringer about the role of organized atheism. These took place shortly after it became clear that Madalyn wasn't coming back, around the time of the move to New Jersey. I urged that we lay off what some call "religion bashing" and focus exclusively on state-church issues. They now focus on atheist dignity as well, but I don't remember if I played any direct role in this: it seems that I was asked for my opinions on stumping for atheist dignity during this time. However, this is now (and always has been) my main focus as an activist -- whether or not I was fully aware to be able to describe it in English.
I played an advisory role in several other matters during and since the move, but I don't remember precisely what all the questions were about. None of them were about the "strong" and "weak" definition or positon, though; my views are more than prominently displayed, so that nobody really needs to ask me for clarification as to my viewpoint (not quite like asking what Madalyn Murray O'Hair thought about religion, but you know!).
But since American Atheists has deliberately shed all but a few select controversies, I'd wager that they really have no official opinion on the matter of "strong" versus "weak" atheism. It has always been popular to recognize the "weak" definition when referring to atheism as a whole, but to allow individuals the dignity of holding either the "strong" or the "weak" position. This, I think, is the most tenable of all the variants I've encountered. Therefore, if American Atheists wants to say "There are no gods," that's fine with me, but I've never heard them say something along the lines of "Unless you say 'There are no gods' you are not an atheist."
As for the "weak" definition being a "concession to theists," I think the contrary is the case for several reasons. First, the "weak" position forces the theist to do all the work, acknowledging the Burden of Proof. Since we are dealing with claims, here, it is the theist who must give us reasons to believe their claims; in lieu of this, we remain nonbelievers or, as many call us, atheists. The "weak" definition puts this all into focus. Secondly, it is the theists, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, that has tried time and time again to popularize the notion that atheism "denies the existence of God." No! You're the only ones even talking about this "God" fellow, so you're going to have to do much better than announce that I'm "denying" this fiction. Cough up some reasons why I ought to assent to your claim.
I make a big deal of this precisely because I don't want anybody to feel the way you have described. I recognize that most ("weak") atheists rarely if ever even think on the subject. However, a group of us (including American Atheists), as a coalition called "The Day That Counts," are calling all nontheists to write or call or fax or e-mail our representatives on June 17th, 2001, and tell them that we are not religious. Hey! I would hope this includes those who are not hard-core "strong" atheists!
The "strong" versus "weak" discussion can take on dogmatic proportions very easily, and resemble a sectarian squabble. This might be happening at American Atheists over the "strong" definition, and I know it happened at United States Atheists when I was there, when one of the leaders wanted me to print an essay calling agnostics the equivalent of weenies. The "weak" position allows me to accept all varieties of atheists as atheists (including [choke] the racist World Church of the Creator, the creationist Raëlians, and even those who speculate about the existence of the paranormal [as opposed to the supernatural]).
While it's tempting to vehemently defend the "weak" definition (as some do, and as others defend the "strong" position), the only time I really get my feathers ruffled is when a theist insists that I am a "strong" atheist and then demands that I defend that position (which I don't even hold).
But in defending this or that position, it is also easy to offend without meaning to offend. What I like about the "weak" position is its inclusiveness, and how holding and advocating this position profoundly influences my personal outlook for the better. It is very similar to the word sombunall, coined by Robert Anton Wilson. This is Wilson's contraction for "some but not all." Wilson contends that the word all makes it very easy to be a racist (etc.), but by removing the word all from one's vocabulary, it is almost impossible to represent an entire group as having a particular trait.
So Wilson said things like, "Sombunall African Americans have a great sense of rhythm," and similar examples of his intention for sombunall. My advocacy of the "weak" definition reflects my long association with Wilson, first as a fan and later when we met. I see the "weak" definition as being similarly powerful in defining one's attitude as omitting words like all and is from one's vocabulary.
Similarly, although I easily fit the description of a "strong" atheist, I deliberately advocate for the "weak" definition when describing atheism as a whole. I also play the "weak" atheist when discussing theism with a theist -- specifically to bring up the Burden of Proof issue. I can lack a god belief and say "There are no gods" at the same time: either position, for me, is true to my outlook. But if I state, in a discussion, that I have yet to be convinced by any god-claims, I am more clearly defining the discussion than if I insist that "There are no gods." So, for purposes of discussion, I am a "weak" atheist: you must make your case with me or I have no business believing your claims; in the privacy of my own mind, that is, for all practical purposes, "There are no gods": this is the presupposition upon which I base all decisions which might be affected had I held a belief in the existence of a god or gods.
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