A Slightly Silly Explanation of “Weak” Atheism
(composed as an addendum to primers on atheist terminology)
It is, I think, sufficiently obviously true that Julius Caesar had either an even or an odd number of teeth in his mouth when he died. (Before you nitpick, please note that zero is an even number.) Therefore, exactly one of the following two statements is true:
(1) Julius Caesar had an odd number of teeth in his mouth when he died.
(2) Julius Caesar had an even number of teeth in his mouth when he died.
To make the comparison to theological questions more clear, (2) can be just as easily restated:
(2’) Julius Caesar did not have an odd number of teeth in his mouth when he died.It is entirely logically possible for anyone to believe that (1) is true; it is just as possible that someone could believe that (2) (and therefore its equivalent, (2’)) is true. Indeed, either (1) or the (2)/(2’) pair has to be true—at least given a few historical premises that no one I know of disputes.
Importantly, though, which should we believe?
To my knowledge, there is no extant evidence regarding the number of teeth in Caesar’s mouth when he died. Most people, I think, would conclude on the basis of our ignorance that neither (1) nor (2’) is a justified belief. In other words, we should believe neither (1) nor (2’)—even though one of them has to be true! We ought to withhold acceptance of each one, because neither is supported by sufficient evidence.
Therefore rejecting statement (1) is not the same as accepting statement (2’), and vice versa. An “absence of belief” on this question is obviously entirely possible. In this hypothetical, it also happens to be the only rational course of action! (That further conclusion may or may not extend to the gods case, though.)
To a “weak” atheist, of course, the existence of gods is entirely analogous to the existence of an odd number of Caesar teeth—in other words, the above dichotomy is functionally equivalent to:
(1a) One or more gods exist.Again, one of the two statements (presuming coherent and consistent definitions of “god” and “exist”) has to be true, but according to a “weak” atheist there is not enough evidence to support either one. “Weak” atheists argue that, just as we ought to withhold support for both (1) and (2’) when it comes to Julius Caesar’s teeth, so we ought to withhold support for (1a) and (2a) regarding gods.
(2a) No gods exist.
(“Strong” atheists, meanwhile, would very likely argue that there are reasons for accepting (2a) that aren’t available for (2’)—that there are good reasons to conclude “no gods” that have no analogs in the “no odd tooth” case. I don’t want this little piece to be seen as an attack on, or attempted disproof of, “strong” atheism; it isn’t.)
A few years after I composed the silly little essay above, I read an online debate in which prominent atheist author Sam Harris proposed a very similar conundrum:
What if I told you that I am certain that I have an even number of cells in my body? What are the chances that I am in a position to have actually counted my cells (there are on the order of 100 trillion) and counted them correctly? Would it be unfair (or worse, “intolerant”) of you to dismiss my assertion as either a product of self-deception or outright dishonesty? Note that this claim has a 50% chance of being true (unlike claims about virgin births and resurrections), and yet it is patently ridiculous. Some claims to knowledge--even about facts that have a high order of probability--immediately brand their claimants as intellectually dishonest.I suspect that Harris and I took similar philosophy classes in college.