Negative and Positive Atheism

explicit atheism

Positive atheism (also called ‘strong atheism’ and ‘hard atheism’) is the form of atheism that asserts that no deities exist. Negative atheism (also called ‘weak atheism’ and ‘soft atheism’) is any other type of atheism, wherein a person does not believe in the existence of any deities, but does not explicitly assert there to be none.

The terms negative atheism and positive atheism were used by British philosopher Antony Flew in 1976,[1] and appeared again in Boston University philosopher Michael Martin’s writings in 1990. Because of flexibility in the term ‘god,’ it is possible that a person could be a positive/strong atheist in terms of certain conceptions of God, while remaining a negative/weak atheist in terms of others.

For example, the God of classical theism is often considered to be a personal supreme being who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent, caring about humans and human affairs. One might be a positive atheist for such a deity (possibly due to the ‘problem of evil’), while being a negative atheist with respect to a deistic conception of God, the belief that while a higher being (like the Christian God) exists, people should rely on logic and reason and not traditions.

Positive and negative atheism are distinct from the philosopher George H. Smith’s less-well-known categories of ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ atheism, also relating to whether an individual holds a specific view that gods do not exist. ‘Positive explicit’ atheists assert that it is false that any deities exist. ‘Negative explicit’ atheists assert they do not believe any deities exist, but do not assert it is true that no deity exists. Those who do not believe any deities exist, but do not assert such non-belief, are included among implicit atheists. Among ‘implicit’ atheists are thus sometimes included the following: children and adults who have never heard of deities; people who have heard of deities but have never given the idea any considerable thought; and those agnostics who suspend belief about deities, but do not reject such belief. All implicit atheists are included in the negative/weak categorization.

Under this positive/negative classification, some agnostics would qualify as negative atheists. The validity of this categorization is disputed, however, and a few prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins avoid it. In ‘The God Delusion,’ Dawkins describes people for whom the probability of the existence of God is between ‘very high’ and ‘very low’ as ‘agnostic’ and reserves the term ‘strong atheist’ for those who claim to know there is no God. He categorizes himself as a ‘de facto atheist’ but not a ‘strong atheist’ on this scale. Within negative atheism, philosopher Anthony Kenny further distinguishes between agnostics, who find the claim ‘God exists’ uncertain, and theological noncognitivists, who consider all talk of gods to be meaningless (like ignostics, they argue that religious language, and specifically words like God, are not cognitively meaningful).

French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain used the negative/positive phrases as early as 1949, but with a different meaning and in the context of a strictly Catholic apologist (which aims to present a rational basis for the Christian faith). The Atheist Community of Austin (ACA) uses the term positive atheism in a different sense. The ACA refers to positive atheism in the sense of putting a positive face to atheism and dispelling the false and negative image of atheism portrayed by religious people, especially in places of worship.

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