In my last post I waxed poetically at some length on the great purity of atheism, claiming it the simplest, cleanest, most unadulterated position in regards to the gods. Now I must tell you of the dozens of labels we use to identify our many factions.
So, okay, we’re not really that pure. Most of our differences are repetitive, however; there’s really only so many ways a simple lack of belief can be divided –two, to be exact, but we gave each of them twenty different names, perhaps just to make it seem like there are more of us.
The Only Relevant Distinction In Atheism
The only real distinction within atheism is whether one is agnostic or gnostic in their atheism, as we covered in more detail in our three-part discussion on agnosticism. On one hand we have agnostic atheists, which most of us are, once the concept is properly explained to us. Agnostic atheists are atheists who lack a belief in any gods and who acknowledge that there just isn’t any concrete evidence to really prove either the existence or nonexistence of the gods. Conversely, gnostic atheists positively believe that no god(s) exist(s).
Let’s be clear, for any readers still unsure on the difference. Agnostic atheists say “I don’t believe that any gods exist.” It’s a lack of belief, a lack of premise or even proposition.
Gnostic atheists say “I believe that no gods exist.” This is a belief, involving a claim regarding the nature of the universe, and an assertion of an unfalsifiable proposition.
Agnostic atheists lack a belief in any gods, gnostic atheists believe there are no gods.
While some may say the distinction is irrelevant outside of formal debate, I disagree. Both have their effects on the mindset and understanding. To think it justifiable to claim as fact what cannot be known is kinda what got us into all this god-trouble in the first place.
Weak, Soft, Negative, Strong, Hard, Positive Atheism, etc
We have already spent too much time on this subject, but most of the different labels for atheists echo this same distinction. Agnostic atheists correlate more or less with soft atheists, weak atheists, or negative atheists, all terms considered alternate ways of indicating our lack of belief and lack of any premise. Gnostic atheists parallel less loosely with hard, strong, positive and explicit atheists, to indicate that they do hold a positive belief and make a claim.
The labels can be kind of insulting, in my apparently weak, negative, soft, agnostic atheist opinion. There’s nothing soft or weak about acknowledging reality as it is, and nothing strong or positive about pretending to have knowledge we don’t have. Nonetheless these are the labels as they exist and I am merely here to explain them.
There are some subtle differences amongst some of the labels, but mostly it’s just a matter of different writers using different terms. The term “weak atheists,” for example, is sometimes conflated with “pragmatic atheists,” which are similar to “implicit atheists,” and neither of those are necessarily juxtaposed to explicit atheists. When it comes to pragmatic atheism or implicit atheism, these are terms I honestly find useless, and presumptuous. I’m not going to assume someone else’s beliefs for them, and noone defines their own beliefs in these terms.
The vast overwhelming majority of atheists I have encountered never use any of these terms, in fact, not “hard” “soft” “strong” “weak” etc, beyond prefacing their atheism with agnostic and much more rarely with gnostic. It’s the only actual distinction within atheism. Agnostic atheists lack a belief in god but acknowledge that nonexistence of the gods cannot be proven. Gnostic atheists believe the nonexistence of the gods can be proven, and feel comfortable asserting with certainty that there are no gods.
There are a couple other types of atheist which may seem conspicuously absent here. Of course I speak of the culturally praised new atheists, those lovable antitheists, and everyone’s favorite friends -those darn pesky militant atheists. But these types of atheists are not the result of distinctions in their actual atheism, and so won’t be discussed here.
Along with secular atheists, these are all types of atheist activists, distinguished by being activists in different ways and to different degrees. But there are no necessary distinctions within the actual atheism of these types, just in what they choose to do with it, which we will discuss in another post.
Other Differences Amongst Atheists
While there are only two ways to differentiate atheism -agnostic or gnostic, the differences amongst atheists themselves are endless. It’s a simple lack of belief, with nothing else to say, so it’s open to everyone regardless of other beliefs or ideology. You might find an atheist spouting any and all sorts of nonsense, just not god-belief. Whatever they’re spouting, it should always be understood that anything beyond lack of belief in any gods and supporting arguments for that lack of belief is not a part of atheism.