Most people would probably assume that an atheist is an atheist, period. After all, individuals who lack belief in a deity are, at least in their unbelief, essentially the same, right? But there’s a subtle—yet crucial—difference in degrees of incredulity that can meaningfully distinguish one’s person’s atheism from another’s. So if there’s an atheist in your life (or you’re one yourself), you might wish to consider just what sort of atheist they (or you) represent.
The main point I’d like to focus on here is one craftily articulated in a book with the intriguingly provocative title, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (2007). Its author, the prominent French philosopher André Comte-Sponville, makes the distinction between the “dogmatic atheist” and the “non-dogmatic atheist.” Largely self-explanatory, the first type of non-believer might be seen as lacking a certain humility. For the assuredness of their atheism borders on an arrogance comparable to that of their fundamentalist-believing counterparts. In their outspoken conviction, they’re quite prepared to go on record declaring the non-existence of any supernatural being. Which is to say, their claim is not expressed as an opinion but as undeniable fact. They're rationalists in the purest sense (i.e., “No God, or gods, exist. Case closed—unless you present me with indisputable scientific evidence to the contrary.”). In their minds virtually all possibility of a cosmic creation undertaken by some celestial deity has been vanquished. (And that’s why some believers experience this adamant stance not simply as overbearing but as downright “militant.”)
As compared to dogmatic atheists, non-dogmatic disbelievers go only one (modest) step beyond the undecided agnostic. It’s accurate to say that neither the non-dogmatic atheist nor the agnostic holds any faith in the existence of a god. But the more tolerant (or less “doctrinaire”) atheist—unlike the agnostic, who prefers to remain non-committal—is still ready to take a stand on the matter, asserting (though as an opinion): “I believe that no god (and certainly not God in the traditional sense) exists.” On the contrary, the agnostic sidesteps the issue by the evasive acknowledgment: “I don’t know whether or not He (he? . . . she?) exists,” stopping just short of atheism—yet clearly short of believing, too.
Consequently, non-dogmatic atheists warrant being viewed as at once more decisive than on-the-fence agnostics, yet less so than dogmatic disbelievers. But even though they strive to keep an open mind on all things—for they’re oriented toward the world empirically and governed by facts rather than faith— non-dogmatic atheists simply can’t find any compelling evidence for a (monotheistic or biblical) god's existence. And examining the mass of data that might serve either to support or invalidate his existence, they can’t help but come down firmly on the side of disbelief.
But note that these “milder” atheists maintain their viewpoint as less than, well, sacrosanct. They refrain from declaring their position infallible because they’re uneasy talking in absolutes. To them, all that humans are able to know for sure exists in the realm of the relative. Anything beyond that points to the insoluble mysteries of the universe—which even today’s scientists recognize may be forever beyond their ever-more-precise instruments of knowing. For all ultimate questions about the world we inhabit—that is, not the “how” of life but the much more essential “why”—are almost by definition objectively unanswerable. Given recent findings in such fields as chaos theory and string theory, astronomers and physicists alike can be humbled by the enormous complexities of the universe. . . . Or, some mathematically speculate, might we actually be living in a multiverse?!
Coming full circle, if scientists in general—and physicists in particular—can’t ever be absolutely certain about Absolutes, how much more difficult must it be for metaphysicists to attain such certitude? To answer my own question: very difficult, indeed!
I’d therefore like to conclude this discussion by bringing in who, personally, I consider to be the expert (metaphysically speaking) on the subject—namely, Comte-Sponville himself. In his own (translated) words: “The truth is that no one knows whether or not God exists and that many, believers and atheists alike, are willing to acknowledge their irreducible unknowingness, which is humanity’s destiny” (p. 72).
And further: “No one would burn a man alive for a demonstrable truth. Hence, no matter what their proponents believe, the Inquisition, the Crusades and the Jihad tend to reinforce the very doubt they set out to destroy. The horror they unleash tends to confirm the fact that no one has true knowledge where God is concerned. Thus, we are doomed to either religious wars or tolerance, according to whether passion or lucidity carry the day” (p. 73).
And finally: “To be an atheist is not necessarily to be against God. Why would I be against what [I believe] does not exist? Personally, I would go even further and admit that I would definitely prefer that there be a God. This is just why, in my eyes, all religions are suspicious” [i.e., all of them would seem to be based on a wish . . . a hope . . . or longing]. (p. 123).
NOTE: If you know of anyone who might be interested in this approach to better understanding atheists, please consider sending them the link.
© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.