Mar 15, 2011

Misquoting Atheism

Does Dawkins understand atheism?

Having read and re-read the God delusion I now think the biggest surprise in the book is not that Richard Dawkins has problems understanding Christianity (you might expect me to say that) but that he doesn’t seem to understand atheism either!

In a chapter entitled ‘The God Hypothesis’ Dawkins sets out what he calls a ‘spectrum of probabilities’ on the question of God’s existence. Each individual holds a position somewhere on the scale of 1 to 7.

1) Represents the Strong Theist whom he describes as ‘100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know.’

2) Very high probability but short of 100 percent. De facto theist. ‘I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.’

There are a range of middle-ground positions and then at the other end of the spectrum are

6) Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.

7) Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God. With the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’

But here is Dawkins controversial and crucial conclusion;

I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated.’

Why would he say that? Because Dawkins wants to represent atheism as a moderate view based on evidence. Theists may be crazy and arrogant enough to believe with certainty but  ‘Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist.’

Dawkins wants to limit the definition of atheism to all intents and purposes to position 6 an altogether more reasonable position.  We might call it a kind of moderate or liberal atheism.

How Dawkins misrepresents atheism

It’s as you look a little bit more into atheism that you begin realise that Dawkin’s is not exactly being far to atheism.  For in reducing atheism to 6) Dawkins is skewing the definition(s) of atheism and he manages to obscure (even dare I say cover up) the debate between atheists over centuries.

Better books on atheism, to which I shall come in due course, set out the range of views and positions held by atheists that Dawkins prefers to ignore. The simple fact of the matter is that many atheists would and do argue for position 7 on his scale.

Michael Martins and Atheism properly understood

The best introduction to atheism written by an atheist philosopher in print today, is Michael Martins’ Atheism: A Philosophical Justification.  Martins is a philosopher of the first order and emeritus professor at Boston University.  He is a distinguished author and edited The Cambridge Companion to Atheism published by Cambridge University Press. He gained his PhD from Harvard University.

Martins points out that the central debate amongst atheists is between those who hold position 6 on Dawkins scale and those who affirm position 7. Martins refers to these as the difference between Weak or Negative Atheism (6 on the Dawkins scale) and Strong or Positive Atheism (7 on his scale).

He addresses the issue in a section of his book entitled ‘Atheism Positive and Negative’ in which he writes,

If you look up “atheism” in a dictionary, you will probably find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly many people understand atheism in this way. Yet many atheists do not, and this is not what the term means if one considers it form the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek ‘a’ means ‘without’ or ‘not’ and ‘theos’ means ‘god.’ From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God.

Anthony Flew, in ‘The Presumption of Atheism’ (1972), understands an atheist as ‘someone who is not a theist.’

Here Martins is describing the negative atheism described and represented by Dawkins and the definition popular in the blogosphere.  Atheism as the absence of belief in God. Or as has elsewhere been described ‘the philosophy of persons who are free from theism’.

But unlike Dawkins Martins goes on to affirm the validity of Positive atheism

Still there is a popular meaning of ‘atheism’ according to which an atheist not simply holds no belief in the existence of a god or gods but believes that there is no god or gods. This use of the term should not be overlooked.

So whilst Martins says we must not overlook position 7 that is precisely what Dawkins is keen to do as have a number of the new atheists I have debated with. The question is why is Dawkins so keen to overlook it in his book?  Remember he says of position 7)

I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated.

The reality of course is that in the world today there are more category 7 atheists than category 6, millions more in fact because category 7 atheism for example is the official position of the Chinese Communist Party which has 73 million members. To join the communist party of China you must, by its very constitution, be a category 7 atheist.

Martins on positive atheism

To avoid confusion, let us cal this positive atheism, and the type of atheism derived from the Greek root and held by the atheistic thinkers surveyed above let us call negative atheism.  In my usage, positive atheism is positive only in the sense that it refers to a positive belief – the belief that there is no god or gods. It is positive in contrast to negative atheism, which has no such positive belief.

Positive atheism denies that one or more gods exist; negative atheism does not.

Just in case we’re tempted to think this is the view of just one philosopher, here is Austin Cline;

Question: What’s the Difference Between Negative & Positive Atheism?

Answer: The difference between negative atheism and positive atheism depends on just how far a person is willing to go in rejecting belief in gods. Whereas negative atheism means simply that a person doesn’t believe in the existence of any gods, positive atheism means that a person has taken the extra step of asserting that no gods exist.

All atheists are at least negative atheists because all atheists, by definition, lack belief in the existence of any gods. In fact the definition of negative atheism is the same as the broad, general definition of atheism itself. Negative atheism is used as a term to distinguish between those atheists form whom only the basic definition applies and those for whom a narrower definition also applies.

The labels explicit atheism / implicit atheism and explicit atheist / implicit atheist mirror the more popular labels strong atheism / weak atheism and strong atheist / weak atheist. The former are more common in philosophy and scholarly literature whereas the latter tend to be much more common in popular literature and casual conversations.

Why is Dawkins so keen to brush Strong (or positive) atheism under the carpet?

I have to say I’m not entirely sure. But it seems to be a tactic widely used by the new atheists for at least two reasons.

1) Weak atheism seems altogether more reasonable than Strong theism. Is Dawkins wanting us to think atheists don’t invoke faith and are not arrogant in saying they know with certainty that which cannot be known, unlike Christians.

2) When definitions of atheism are reduced to weak atheism then the crimes and misdemeanours committed in the name of positive atheism can be quietly ignored because they don’t fit the revised definition of atheism created by Dawkins but not recognised by philosophers.

On which note here is a direct quote from one new atheist from a recent exchange of views in response to a post on my blog:

There are not “two distinct forms” of atheism. There is one form of atheism. All else is extraneous; socio-political ideology, dogma, doctrine or otherwise. That is demonstrated by the definition we gave you, and that is why we gave it to you. Persistence with the “types” of atheism notion is unwarranted.’

Given Martins careful treatment of the forms of atheism such revisionist writing is extraordinary. When I first started coming across these sort of comments, perhaps out of naivety, I presumed that those making the statements were simply not familiar with the philosophical terminology. But the more I have debated them the more apparent it has become that this is a willing ignorance born out of a desire to insist that atheism can only be defined as the absence of belief rather than the belief there is no god. Such redefining flies in the face of much atheist writing.

New atheists simply refuse to respect the definition of atheism put forward by many, positive atheists.

Why would anyone wish to obscure atheism in this way?

It would seem to me from listening in on arguments made by Dawkins and Peter Atkins in particular that positive atheism is fatal to their key assertion that although religion kills ‘no one kills in the name of atheism’.

The argument goes that you can’t be motivated by an absence of something.  If the only definition of atheism allowed is weak atheism then, for example, the Soviet Union could not have been motivated by atheism in its systematic attempt to eradicate religion from its society often by violence and murder.

Once we recognise that positive atheism is a positive belief, and a motivating belief, it is much more difficult to explain away the fact that positive atheists have done some pretty nasty things in the name of atheism in the last 100 years. It also becomes impossible to contend that religion and religion alone is the cause of all the problem. To make it stick that many atrocities committed by atheists in the name of atheism it depends on recognising the positive definition of atheism.

So here again is Michael Martins;

Marx and Engels were indeed atheists – positive atheists – and their anti-religious views were an important part of their revolutionary program,. Religion, according to Marx, distorted people’s self-awareness, because their self-awareness was based on a view of society that was itself distorted. Religion was the opium – the pain-killer – of the suffering masses. The cure was for people to free themselves from the life that made them crave this opium. The way to free themselves was to uproot the organisation of society by social revolution….If being a Marxist entails embracing all of Marx and Engel’s views, one cannot be a Marxist without being an atheist.’

Now note Martins concession. The revolutionary zeal of communism had its origins and found its strength in anti religious sentiment. It was this uprooting of ‘the organisation of society by social revolution’ that became the justification for the murder of millions of religious people in the name of atheism.


Dawkins in the God delusion writes ‘Fundamentalists know what they believe and they know that nothing will change their minds.’ In my dealing with new atheists I’ve met some pretty full-on atheist fundamentalists as Dawkins defines the term.

When atheists redefine atheism to suit their own arguments, when the greatest of atheist thinking such as that represented by Michael Martins is dismissed without a second thought, something dishonest is going on and cannot be left unchallenged.

As atheist Austin Cline comments;

Offering the dictionary definition of atheism is popular, of course, but always involves either a highly abridged pocket dictionary or a wilful disregard of anything in the definition that doesn’t fit with one’s preconceptions.

Nowhere is this error more obvious than in the writing and blogging of at least some new atheists.


  • [...] read it, it’s an excellent piece. Update: Neil has followed up that post with this one, dealing with the distinctions between positive and negative atheism which arise out of the [...]

  • Great Article.

    I have come across this ‘game of definitions’ before and I was very interested to read William Lane Craig’s brief history of it’s development –

    here is the link

    The conclusion is that the attraction of a negative atheism – (someone who is simply not a theist) is that someone can ‘claim the mantle of Atheism without shouldering it’s responsibilities’ (to provide a burden of proof for the view).

    • Thanks Giles. The extraordinary thing is how many I debate with refuse to recognise the distinction between Strong and Weak atheism nor are they willing to recognise that more people are Strong atheists in the world than are their weak form.

  • Great article, thanks. In discussions on my own blog, I’ve certainly found the same avoidance of stating any clear positive beliefs. It actually led to writing a post on that exact problem:

    I had a look for definitions in something more useful than pocket dictionaries, and the authorities seem to agree with Martins:

    Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010):
    Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God.

    Encyclopedia of Philosophy (MacMillan, 2005):
    On our definition, an ‘atheist’ is a person who rejects belief in God.

    In both cases, there is a recognition that atheism requires a belief (and is thus a usefully distinct term from agnosticism).

    • Thanks for your comments and your blog. Useful to have those dictionary definitions for those who insist on ‘redefining’ atheism to suit their polemic.

  • “The reality of course is that in the world today there are more category 7 atheists than category 6, millions more in fact because category 7 atheism for example is the official position of the Chinese Communist Party which has 73 million members. To join the communist party of China you must, by its very constitution, be a category 7 atheist.”

    This is a very silly statement. Are you seriously claiming that because members of the Chinese Communist Party are required to profess their strong atheism, that they necessarily hold those beliefs?

    • Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to comment. I accept that it’s possible that not every person who joins the communist party will be category 7. But I don’t accept that it’s silly to conclude that across the world the majority of atheists are category 7. I suspect that 73 million might well be an underestimate of the number of category 7 atheists in China. I have the privilege of meeting many Chinese International students who come to study in Birmingham and over the last 17 years or so they have consistently defined themselves as category 7 atheists. I’ve not even stopped to ask them whether they have joined the communist party. So maybe 73 million is a conservative estimate. the reason I say this is that category 6 atheist is relatively new and entirely Western. Of the Chinese I have met, which would number 50-60 over those 17 years I’ve not met one category 6 atheist. I’m not even sure they understand it.

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