Strong atheism (sometimes called "positive atheism" by its adherents), is a type of atheism that asserts the absolute doctrine that there are no gods. It is different from weak atheism, in which the atheist claims only that there is insufficient evidence that any god exists.
Strong atheists use three types of arguments:
- Semantic apologetics: Arguing that religious language is meaningless, and therefore beliefs based on that language are not justified;
- Incoherency apologetics: Arguing that religious concepts are self-contradictory, and therefore cannot possibly be true;
- Materialist apologetics: Arguing that because religion contradicts science, science must reject religion;
Semantic apologetics supports strong atheism by criticizing the words employed to describe God as "meaningless".
For example, a strong atheist might criticize the assertion "God transcends space and time" by asking what exactly the believer means by saying that. If the believer is unable to explain what he means, the strong atheist would conclude "You don't know what you are talking about; therefore your statement carries no meaning; therefore you are not justified in believing it."
As strong atheist George Smith wrote:
- "To say that an ‘unie’ possesses wisdom in proportion to its nature—while stipulating that such wisdom is different in kind from man’s wisdom and that the nature of an ‘unie’ is unknowable—contributes nothing to our understanding of ‘unie’ or to the meaning of the attributes when applied to an ‘unie.’ ... To say that God is ‘good’ or ‘wise’ is to say nothing more then some unknowable being possesses some unknown qualities in an unknowable way."
A theist might respond to this line of reasoning by challenging as non sequitur the argument that "because you cannot comprehensively explain what you mean, then you are unjustified in believing it."
For example, atheists cannot comprehensively explain what the "big bang" was. They have a vague concept that the universe began in a single point. They speculate about what it might have been like. But they cannot comprehensively explain what they are talking about. That does not mean that the "big bang" is a meaningless concept. It is simply one that is poorly defined. But more importantly, their inability to comprehensively define it certainly does not necessarily mean that it did not occur.
As another example, children commonly repeat what they are told by their parents without fully understanding what the sentences mean. That does not make them unjustified in believing that what their parents say is true. And it certainly does not make the sentences themselves false. When a theist holds a position he does not fully understand, he does so based on his faith that the statement is true, based on the credibility of his source. In other words, if God in all His glory sat down with the believer and said, "I transcend space and time," without fully explaining it, the believer could reasonably accept the conclusion based on the credibility of God, even without understanding it.
Finally, the fact that the believer did not fully understand what the phrase meant would certainly not stand as proof that the statement itself was false.
Thus, while this argument stands as a warning against casually using language without assigning definite meaning to our words, it certainly does not prove that the God about whom these words are spoken does not exist.
Incoherency apologetics claims that the concepts and attributes surrounding theism are logically incoherent and/or contradictory.
The most common brand of incoherency apologetics is the problem of evil. The argument states that if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, then there should be no evil in the world, because God knows of the evil, could stop it, and would want to. Therefore either God does not have one or more of the alleged attributes, or does not exist at all. Either way, the God does not exist as believed.
There are two theistic responses to this argument: theodicy and open theism. Theodicy is the effort to reconcile the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence with the existence of evil in the world. For example, the idea that what we perceive as evil is actually part of God's greater plan that we just don't understand. Open theism is the belief that while God exists, he is not omnipotent, omniscient, and/or omnibenevolent.
Materialist apologetics supports strong atheism with arguments like the following:
- Science necessarily presupposes that matter and energy are all that exists;
- Theism asserts that more than matter and energy exist;
- Therefore, since theism rejects a necessary presupposition of science, science must reject theism.
A theist could respond by challenging the first two points. Why must science presuppose that matter and energy are all that exist? If a scientist were to find evidence that something else existed, wouldn't scientists be obliged to acknowledge its existence? Further, why must theism assert that more than matter and energy exist? What if God's Spirit is simply a unique form of energy?
For another example, strong atheist Michael Martin wrote:
- "Consider science. It presupposes the uniformity of nature: that natural laws govern the world and that there are no violations of such laws. However, Christianity presupposes that there are miracles in which natural laws are violated. Since to make sense of science one must assume that there are no miracles, one must further assume that Christianity is false. To put this in a different way: Miracles by definition are violations of laws of nature that can only be explained by God's intervention. Yet science assumes that insofar as an event as an explanation at all, it has a scientific explanation--one that does not presuppose God . Thus, doing, science assumes that the Christian world view is false."
A theist could respond by challenging his assumption that miracles must be seen as violations of the laws of nature. A theist might just as easily see them as interactions within the laws of nature. Just as a human's ability to drive a car may appear miraculous to a monkey, God's ability to cause virgin births may appear miraculous to a human. Yet in neither case was there necessarily a violation of the laws of nature. Perhaps God simply understands the laws to such a degree that he is able to manipulate them in ways we cannot grasp. Our knowledge of the laws of nature is far too limited for us to make the bold claim that events in the universe that defy our explanation are violations of the laws of nature. If they occur, they are best understood as reflecting laws of nature we do not yet understand. It would be the duty of science, then, not to exclude these miraculous events as impossible, but rather to acknowledge their occurrence, and seek to understand them.
Jacques Maritain wrote:
- "By positive atheism I mean an active struggle against everything that reminds us of God -- that is to say, anti-theism rather than atheism -- and at the same time a desperate, I would say heroic, effort to recast and reconstruct the whole human universe of thought and the whole human scale of values according to that state of war against God. Such positive atheism was the tragic, solitary atheism of Nietzsche; such is today the academic, fashionable atheism of existentialism; such is the revolutionary atheism of dialectical materialism. The latter is of special interest to us, because it has succeeded in getting a considerable number of men to accept wholeheartedly this new kind of faith, and to give themselves sincerely and unquestionably to it."
- George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1979), Chapter 3.
- Michael Martin, The Transcendental Argument for the Nonexistence of God, New Zealand Rationalist & Humanist, Autumn 1996.
- Jacques Maritain, On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism, The Review of Politics, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 267-280, July, 1949.