Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Primer on Atheism and Agnosticism

Most people, when they hear the word "atheist," have a definite picture that forms in their minds. The picture is what more nuanced people would probably call a "militant atheist," and more likely than not, that person is probably tearing up a bible, or maybe spitting on a crucifix.

But atheism is a much more subtle beast than that, and comes in more varieties than most people realize. I'm gonna try to lay out the four major overlapping divisions of atheism here.

Implicit Atheism

Only those who define atheism in the broadest sense (as I tend to do) really recognize implicit atheism as a type of atheism at all. Put simply, implicit atheists are those who lack theistic belief without consciously rejecting it. By this reasoning, somebody who was born, lived his whole life, and died with no exposure to religion, and who didn't formulate religious beliefs on his own, would be an implicit atheist. He quite obviously lacked theistic belief, but he didn't actively reject that belief, since he was never given the opportunity. Those who buy into the concept of implicit atheism then say that everyone on the planet is born as an implicit atheist.

Explicit Atheism

Given the definition of implicit atheism, the definition of explicit atheism is obvious. An explicit atheist is one who consciously rejects theistic belief. This probably sounds closer to that picture that forms in most people's heads when they hear the word "atheist," but we're not quite there yet. There are two more subdivisions of atheism that overlap with those that I've already laid out here.

Weak Atheism

A weak atheist is someone who lacks theistic belief, without the positive assertion that deities do not exist. This may seem the same as implicit atheism, but there's one important difference: A weak atheist can have consciously rejected theism, but not adopted the viewpoint that deities definitively do not exist. Thus, all implicit atheists are weak atheists, but weak atheists can be either implicit or explicit atheists.

Strong Atheism

Again, here's a definition that follows directly from the one before it. A strong atheist is someone who lacks theistic belief and also positively asserts that no deities can exist. As you can see, if you've been paying attention, a strong atheist is necessarily an explicit atheist, since his viewpoint includes a positive assertion, and not just a lack of belief. But again, not all explicit atheists are strong atheists. Truly, it's the vocal fringe of these strong atheists who make up the pictures that pop into most people's heads when they think of atheists.

* * * * *

Astute readers will at this point notice that such a broad definition of atheism doesn't necessarily exclude atheists (weak atheists, anyway) from being agnostics as well. Let's jump into a brief definition of two differing types of agnosticism here, just to be perfectly clear.

Weak Agnosticism

A weak agnostic says simply that the existence or nonexistence of deities is currently unknown. A look at the etymology of the word makes this clear. The prefix "a-" means "without," and in Greek, "gnosis" means "knowledge." Hence, "agnostic" literally means "without knowledge."

Strong Agnosticism

A strong agnostic believes, like the weak agnostic, that the existence or nonexistence of deities is currently unknown. More than that, though, the strong agnostic asserts that not only do we not know whether or not deities exist, but that it is impossible for us to know whether or not deities exist. Whereas the weak agnostic leaves the door open for mitigating evidence at some point down the line, the strong agnostic asserts that the existence of deities is, by their very definitions, unknowable.

* * * * *

So where am I going with this? I'll get to that in my next post. You're welcome to guess in the comments, though.