Strong atheism is a term generally used to describe atheists who accept as true the proposition, "gods do not exist". Weak atheism refers to any other type of non-theism. Historically, the terms positive and negative atheism have been used for this distinction, where "positive" atheism refers to the specific belief that gods do not exist, and "negative" atheism refers merely to an absence of belief in gods. Because of flexibility in the term "god", it is understood that a person could be a strong atheist in terms of certain portrayals of gods, while remaining a weak atheist in terms of others.
The distinction between strong and weak atheism is one of several applied to beliefs about the existence or nonexistence of gods. It is similar in ways to the popularly held conception of "atheists" and "agnostics," in which atheism has generally been considered an active disbelief in gods, except by starting instead with the broader definition of atheism which includes any absence of belief in gods and thus encompasses some forms of agnosticism (see agnostic atheism
). Accordingly, the division between "strong" and "weak" atheism functions to separate atheism as a disbelief in gods from forms of atheism that fall short of this, and which could simultaneously be characterized as agnosticism. The validity of this categorisation 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 "I know there is no god". He categorises himself as a "de facto
atheist" but not
a "strong atheist" under this definition.
Within negative or weak 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.
Strong and weak atheism are compared as well to the philosopher George 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. However, the original and technical meanings of implicit and explicit atheism are distinct from weak and strong atheism in having to do with conscious rejection and unconscious rejection of theism rather than with positive belief and negative belief.
The "strong" and "weak" groups did not come into common usage until the early 1990s, their popularization assisted by their common usage in the alt.atheism Usenet
group at the time. While the terms themselves are relatively recent, the concepts they represent have been in use for some time. In earlier philosophical publications, the terms negative atheism
and positive atheism
were more common; these terms were used by Antony Flew
in 1972, although Jacques Maritain
used the phrases in a similar, but strictly Catholic apologist
, context as early as 1949.