If my goal is to justify why I am an atheist, first I should tell exactly what I mean by “atheism”, and this is not so trivial. There are several reasons for this. As quite often, our concepts are a little bit confused or illogical, because of historical reasons, and because of several different contexts. I explain this in detail.
One reason is that the concept of “god”1 is itself not well defined, and because of this, people may believe in different kind of gods – maybe even one certain believer would not know exactly, what (s)he believes in – so, respectively, an atheist is in a difficult position to define his/her position. It is a quite common pattern that an atheist would criticise a certain belief in a certain kind of god, and then, the believer would answer: “that is not my god”. Walter Kaufmann put this like: “and the concept of ‘God’ is almost, but not entirely so elastic, as the concept of ‘y'” 2, where he meant by “y” the common, unknown variable in mathematics.
Now, one can say – and this is the right thing to do – that the believer should define in the first place, what (s)he believes, god is like, and then the atheist can criticise it, if (s)he wants it. This would be a reasonable way of discussion, but unfortunately often this is not the case. Moreover, one expects that atheism as a common concept be defined somehow in general.
A second reason is that concepts usually change from time to time, and from culture to culture. This is also the case with the concept of atheism: it has been changed through history what kind of faith atheism was facing, and consequently how it defined itself.
A third reason is logical: there are not only two possibilities about the belief in god. You may not only believe or deny god. There is a third possibility.
To detail the first reason: among beliefs in god we may distinguish theism, against which atheism seems to define itself. Theism means the belief in a personal god, who did not only create the world, but also cares about it, and performs miracles. The gods of the monotheistic religions are like this. Deists, however, believe in a god, who only created the world and does not perform miracles, does not send prophets, and does not inspire holy scriptures. During the enlightenment a lot of philosophers were believing in such a god, nowadays there are few people, who would call themselves deists. However many people, who do not adhere to a monotheistic church, in fact believe something like this. And to add even more complication, there is also polytheism: usually the faith in the existence of several personal, and maybe also impersonal gods.
Referring to the second reason, the meaning of the word “atheism” changed over time. Judging by the negative prefix, we would think that the atheists are those, who do not believe in the god of theism. But the word “atheism” is older than the distinction of theism and deism. Therefore nowadays a person only merits to be called an atheist, if (s)he does not believe in any sort of god, neither deistic or polytheistic.
I of course will use the word in this modern sense, but the most recent interpretation of the word even differs from the previous ones. In the recent years the concept of atheism tends to be broadening, and this was driven by the atheists themselves, mostly on the Internet.3 This most modern interpretation has the advantage that an atheist may espouse a view that is easier to defend against critique. So I think this latest reform in interpretation was meaningful and I will keep on with this.
This latest change has not yet fully made its way into public awareness: not everybody means the same by the word “atheism”. While arguing with believers I often experience, they think automatically that the atheist denies god, viz. the existence of god. Heretofore I checked some well known encyclopaedia – that may be regarded as a documentation of the most common usages of words in different countries – and I had to realize that nowadays this interpretation is still widespread. Before checking, I thought this might be a communist remnant (the author was growing up in the socialistic Hungary), but there were also western encyclopaedia that described the meaning of “atheist” like this. The Internet version of Larousse4 and the New Hungarian Encyclopaedia defines atheism as denying god. On the other hand the Internet version of Encyclopaedia Britannica5 and the „The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary6 and Wikipédia7 also allows the absence of the belief in god.
Returning to etymology we have to realize that the “atheist” originates from “a-theos”, which means “(being) without god”, consequently it refers to a person who does not believe in god. The modern sense of atheism returns to this etymological interpretation, which means that the respective person does not believe in god. Now, you need some discipline in logic not to confuse the absence of belief in god and the denial of the existence of god. Since those, who do not believe in god8, may deny the existence of god, but they may simply just not believe it, since they are not convinced about it, but neither of its opposite. And if someone does not know if god exists or not, I think, the right thing is not to believe in his existence.
If someone says “I don’t believe in god” that is not the same as saying “I think9 there is no god”, which later one means “I deny the existence of god”. Only the later one is denying god. Since, though it is true that in classical logic from the two statements:
God does not exist.
one, and only one can be true – supposing, the meaning of the word “god” is fixed – but there may be three different opinions about this:
someone may believe in god, i.e. in I.;
someone may believe (or know), there is no god, i.e. in II.;
and someone may not have a decided opinion about the existence of god.
Yes, while there are only two possibilities about the truth value of the proposition “there exists a god”, there might be three opinions about this, or we may say, there exists the case not having an opinion. The logical principle: “tertium non datur” is valid for the truth of the proposition, but there is a third case about the judgement about this statement.
In the modern sense atheism involves 2. and 3. and the distinction of 2. and 3. leads to the different branches of atheism. Those, who deny god, i.e. state that there is no god, are called “strong” or “positive atheists”. This is case 2. Those, who merely do not believe in god, who do not have a decided opinion, are called “weak” or “negative atheist”. This is case 3. “Weak” refers here to the fact that his/her opinion is weaker. But since I don’t like the adjectives like “weak” or “negative”, I like to use the expression “agnostic atheism” for 3. And here we arrived at another important concept, which is “agnosticism”.
An agnostic thinks that (s)he has no decisive knowledge in this question, therefore (s)he usually does not believe, neither denies god. So his/her statement is the same as 3., that of the weak atheist. There is more emphasis by the agnostic on the lack of knowledge, on the other hand more emphasis on the lack of belief by the weak atheist.
In theory there might exist an agnostic believer too, since one might say: “I have no knowledge about the existence of god, but I have faith in him”. The so called fideists argue like this, adding that faith is faith, exactly because there is no knowledge. So the fideist is an agnostic adherent and (s)he is proud of that. On the other hand theoretically it might be that someone admits not knowing that god does not exist, but denies its existence. It would be in my opinion a similarly inconsequent behaviour, but if (s)he can think of any justification for denial other than knowledge, it is theoretically possible.
I, myself, I would not know of an agnostic strong atheist. About agnostic adherents the more: as I said, this is the fideist version of religion. Quite often, however, the fideists get confused, and try to argue with knowledge-like arguments, which is an inconsistent behaviour. For example a fideist would claim, that faith is not knowledge, but then argue by referring to famous scientists who were believers.
So, the difference between the weak atheist and the agnostic is that weak atheism is about the lack of belief, while agnosticism about the lack of knowledge, that might be the reason for not taking a side, moreover, I think, it is a good reason. I think, it is right, only to hold something to exist, if we have positive knowledge about this, and in this case this upholding is not a faith. Evidentialism, and the principle of Occam’s razor is telling more about this.
Consequently, if we knew about god, then I would say: “I am a god-knower”, and not a believer. Btw. this expression is also sometimes used, there are people, like this, but I will call them also believers, since in my opinion we do not have knowledge about god whatsoever. And if I have no knowledge about god, then I cannot be a god-knower. Me neither a (god)-believer. This coincides with the principle of science, according to which only those things may be regarded to exist, that of the existence is confirmed, ergo, we know it exists. This also implies that according the knowledge and principles of science, an educated, consequent person may only be an agnostic atheist. But not, because science is dogmatic, but because this is, what we know, and not something else.
The statement about the existence of god (or any existential statement) is not symmetric in that sense, that usually it is easier to prove the existence of things, than their non-existence. As a default it is therefore justified to say: the burden of proof lies with the statement of existence, and in default of this we do not believe in god.
With the expression: “agnostic atheism”, I state that I am a weak atheist, but I also precise the explanation for it. In fact I am against faith in general, and the lack of belief in god is only a special case of this general principle. I do neither believe in a lot of other, unconfirmed things, like Santa Claus, the Monster of Loch Ness and the extraterrestrial intelligence. Speaking about the last one, it is possible, that it may exist, and any time it could be confirmed. In this case I will change my mind, because I will know that there is an extraterrestrial intelligent life form. Now we don’t know this, so I don’t state it neither positively, nor negatively. I am ET-agnostic.
But my views are even more complex. I am an agnostic atheist against a kind of general god concept, or against a deistic10 one. I really cannot confirm or falsify that some kind of uninterested god created the world. Especially, if it can be included that our Universe is some kind of “computer” simulation, and is “created” this way. I cannot refute this, and I cannot confirm this empirically. This question is empirically inaccessible, meaningless metaphysics. I will elaborate on this meaningless metaphysics a little bit further.
I also refer here to the book of Michael Martin to explain my viewpoint. Michael Martin is a strong atheist. He calls that positive atheism. He argues against the existence of god in his quite extensive book. He claims, he denied the existence of any god. But actually Martin does not consider the deistic concepts of god. 11. His whole book is against the god of the monistic religions, especially against the Christian god. His critique could however easily be extended to the Jewish or Muslim god, that is not the problem. But what is missing from the book is the deist god, i.e. a god, who created the world but who does not intervene in the Universe. The argument from evil or the argument from divine hiddenness are only valid against the theistic god, especially against the Christian god, who is supposed to be good.
Against a deistic god I would say the only critique can be that he is not confirmed empirically, we have no reason to believe in him/her, it may be said, the belief in such a god is metaphysical nonsense. But there is no such strong refutation of the deistic god, like of the theistic god. Therefore I say, I am “only” agnostic against the deistic god. This is of course a good enough reason not to believe in him/her. Moreover, I think the belief in a deistic god is also rubbish.
Now, if we speak about the Muslim, Christian or Jewish god, these are quite specific conceptions of god, they believe a lot more of specific details about these gods, than the deists about their god. I deny the existence of the Muslim, Christian or Jewish god, because I am confirmed when saying that such gods do not exist. I may refute from the logical viewpoint the existence of these gods, because the very concept of these gods include inconsistencies 12, therefore it is impossible for them to exist. As a consequence I deny that the Christian, the Jewish or the Muslim god (Allah) exists, and I am a strong atheist regarding them.
Moreover, I am justified to deny the existence of a benevolent and almighty god, because knowing the Universe I found it (actually, this mostly concerns our Earth) to be such, that it does not conform to such a hypothesis.13. What I am speaking here about is mostly the problem of evil, which is an empirical argument against god, it is less strong than the logical refutation, but it is a strong enough rebuttal to justify the denial. I think the hypothesis of an almighty and benevolent god is likewise false like for example the geocentric model. The non-existence of a benevolent and almighty god can be confirmed and stated, the confirmation is the argument from evil. There is only two possible solution for the problem of evil: god is either not benevolent, or does not exist. We might think that there exists a third resolution: that god is not almighty (not even in the physical sense). But the concept of such a creator does not conform to the aforementioned religions. Most people would even say, a not almighty god does not deserve to be called a god.
On the other hand regarding an unconcerned, deist god I am “only” an agnostic atheist. This one is a concept that is not confirmable, nor refutable, but of course I do not believe in such a god, because my principle is that I only accept things to exists, that are confirmed empirically. Btw. the hypothesis of an unconcerned god is not widespread. Few people would think that god is uninterested.
Another philosophical view that is important to understand my opinion is a thesis of logical positivism, according to which there is a bigger problem with metaphysical statements than that they are false: namely they are nonsense. In my opinion beside the critique against logical positivism, this principle can be hold even today, because it is valid. I call a statement as metaphysical if it wants to state something about reality, but it cannot be confirmed empirically14.
Instead of describing logical positivism in detail15 I explain with a specific example what the principle says. According to the currently widespread three monotheistic religions god created the world from nothing (ex nihilo). This statement is nonsense, we cannot possibly describe, what it means. It is an empty figure of speech. I have never read in any religion a description, a specification or even an analogy about how this should be interpreted. Now, because the statement is nonsense, therefore it cannot come as a surprise, it cannot be a problem that I do not decide its truth. Once Wolfgang Pauli told about a dissertation about methapsysic: “This is not only not true, it is not even false.”16 Now, a lot of statements in religion are like this: they are not even false, they are nonsense.
While my atheism is only agnostic in the way I described above, this positivist view is considered as “radical”, moreover, I am radical also in the sense that I am strongly against religion. I explain what this means, and why this is somewhat unusual.
Most of the agnostics think that because the question of god cannot be decided, therefore they are neither justified to have a strong view about religion. The typical agnostic has not much problem with most of the adherents, (s)he is only regarding himself/herself to be more consequent. Most of the people would think this is logical like this: if an agnostic says there is no argument pro god or contra god, then this question is somehow uncertain, so (s)he cannot be certain, i.e. strong against religion. According to the received view, for a strong critique of religion there needs to be a strong evidence against god, and vice versa: to an uncertain opinion about god only a lukewarm view on religion can fit.
Now, this might sound like logical, but it is not. Although I am only agnostic about the deist god, but I do not believe in him/her, and I am very certain (strong) that this is the only right opinion about this. While being an agnostic atheist, I think, faith is a folly, and religion I think is harmful in our modern society. One can say, I am a “radical agnostic atheist”: my opinion is situated in the middle, but I strongly think that one has to stand in the middle.
For my radical hostility against religion also speaks that I am in fact a strong atheist about the most widespread religions on Earth, because they always contain some logical inconsistency, or something that is against our empirical experience. So I can be even more critical against the world religions that exist.
I also have to emphasize that my hostility against religion does not mean violence. I am strongly for freedom of speech and thought. I am strongly for the right of freedom of religion. We do not imprison those, who believe in esoteric, superstition or conspiracy theories. In a democracy everybody has the right to be stupid, until that does not harm others. I am for freedom, and for democracy. I am on the other hand against religion, when it harms others. And by harm I mean here, like spending public money on churches. That harms, but if it is according the democratic law, I only can criticise it. This is a measured reaction of such a harm. I hope, people will by time slowly convinced about the harm done by religion.
1 I will write the word “god” in singular, but with small capitals. Because I am not a monotheist, from my point of view this is right like this. I might go by the way believers write “god”, but why would I?
2 Walter Kaufmann: “The faith of a heretic”, in S.T. Joshi (ed.) “Atheism, A reader”. Prometheus Books, 2000.
3 There is only one Internet, therefore I write this one with big capitals.
6 „The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary”, Oxford at the Claredon Press, 1971.
8 The term “I don’t believe in god” always means “I don’t believe in the existence of god” and not something like “I don’t trust in the powers of god”. Of course I don’t trust in the power of a god that I don’t believe to exist, but that is a trivial consequence.
9 There is of course a difference between “knowing” and “believing” (in the sense of faith), but here my focus is not on that.
10 Deism is the faith, according which god created the world, and its laws, and then the world is operating itself. According to deism, god does not sustain the world, does not do miracles, does not interfere with the Universe.
11 Michael Martin: „Atheism: A Philosophical Justification”, Temple University Press, 1990. Martin writes about this on page 465., in the Appendix. It seems, he realized the deficit later. And on the page 466. he actually admits the possibility of deism and of the view that I also represent. According to his formulation this is a complex form of atheism, that is a strong atheist against the theistic gods, and it is agnostic (weak, negative) against the deistic god.
12 For example the teaching of the trinity is utterly logically inconsistent.
13 In the enlightenment most of the thinkers renounced the thought of a benevolent god. A god example for this is the Candide of Voltaire that caricatures the belief that our Universe is the best possible Universe, i.e. that god could not have created a better Universe. According to Candide Voltaire must have only believed in the deist god, that had nothing to do with the existing religions. This is, how Voltaire could be believer and anticlerical at he same time.
14 Technically speaking I am speaking here about the weak verificationist pronciple. There is no meaningful, synthetic proposition that cannot be confirmed empirically. Verification means here only confirmation and not deduction and not certainty.
15 The best known but not final formulation of the thesis is in Rudolf Carnaps “Überwindung der Metaphysik durch Logische Analyse der Sprache,” appeared in Erkenntnis, Vol. II., 1932. The weak principle was formulated in Rudolf Carnap: “Testability and Meaning”, Philosophy of Science, vol. III.,1936.