Negative and positive atheism

Some varieties of atheism
     on right Explicit "positive" / "strong" / "hard" atheists assert that "At least one deity exists" is false.
     on right Explicit "negative" / "weak" / "soft" atheists do not assert the above but reject or eschew a belief that any deities exist.
     on left Implicit "negative" / "weak" / "soft" atheists include agnostics (and infants or babies) who do not believe or do not know that a deity or deities exist and who have not explicitly rejected or eschewed such a belief.
Note: Areas in the diagram are not meant to indicate relative numbers of people.

Positive atheism, also called strong atheism and hard atheism, is the form of atheism that asserts that no deities exist; negative atheism, also called weak atheism and soft atheism, is any other type of atheism, i.e. where a person does not believe in the existence of any deities and does not explicitly assert that there are none.[1][2][3]

The terms "negative atheism" and "positive atheism" were used by Antony Flew in 1976[1] and have appeared in Michael Martin's writings since 1990.[4]

Scope of application

Because of flexibility in the term god, it is possible that a person could be a positive/strong atheist in terms of certain conceptions of God, while remaining a negative/weak atheist in terms of others. For example, the God of classical theism is often considered to be a personal supreme being who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent, caring about humans and human affairs. One might be a positive atheist for such a deity (see problem of evil), while being a negative atheist with respect to a deistic conception of God by rejecting belief in such a deity but not explicitly asserting it to be false.

Positive and negative atheism are distinct from the philosopher George H. 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. "Positive explicit" atheists assert that it is false that any deities exist. "Negative explicit" atheists assert they do not believe any deities exist, but do not assert it is true that no deity exists. Those who do not believe any deities exist, but do not assert such non-belief, are included among implicit atheists. Among "implicit" atheists are thus sometimes included the following: children and adults who have never heard of deities; people who have heard of deities but have never given the idea any considerable thought; and those agnostics who suspend belief about deities, but do not reject such belief. All implicit atheists are included in the negative/weak categorization.

Under this positive/negative classification, some agnostics would qualify as negative atheists. The validity of this categorization 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 those who claim to know there is no God. He categorizes himself as a "de facto atheist" but not a "strong atheist" on this scale.[5] Within negative 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.[6]

Alternate meanings

Jacques Maritain used the negative/positive phrases as early as 1949, but with a different meaning and in the context of a strictly Catholic apologist.[7]

Goparaju Ramachandra Rao (1902-1975), better known by his nickname "Gora", was an Indian social reformer, anti-caste activist, and atheist. He proposed a philosophy he called "positive atheism", which treated atheism as a way of life in his 1972 book, "Positive Atheism".[8]

The Atheist Community of Austin (ACA) uses the term positive atheism in a different sense. The ACA refers to positive atheism in the sense of putting a positive face to atheism and dispelling the false and negative image of atheism portrayed by religious people, especially in places of worship.

Agnostics are not always merely implicit atheists. For instance, Philip Pullman (born 1946), the English author of the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy, which has atheism as a major theme, is an explicit atheist,[9][10] but also describes himself as technically an agnostic.[11]

See also


  1. 1 2 Flew, Antony (1976). "The Presumption of Atheism". The Presumption of Atheism, and other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom, and Immortality. New York: Barnes and Noble. pp. 14ff. Retrieved 2011-12-10. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels 'positive atheist' for the former and 'negative atheist' for the latter.
  2. Martin, Michael (2006). The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-84270-0.
  3. "Definitions of the term "Atheism"". Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 2007. Retrieved 2010-06-01.
  4. Martin, Michael (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Temple University Press. p. 26. ISBN 0-87722-943-0. "negative atheism, the position of not believing a theistic God exists" / "positive atheism: the position of disbelieving a theistic God exists"; p. 464: "Clearly, positive atheism is a special case of negative atheism: Someone who is a positive atheist is by necessity a negative atheist, but not conversely".
  5. The God Delusion, pp. 50–51
  6. Kenny, Anthony (2006). "Worshipping an Unknown God". Ratio. 19 (4): 442. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9329.2006.00339.x.
  7. Maritain, Jacques (July 1949). "On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism". The Review of Politics. 11 (3): 267–280. doi:10.1017/S0034670500044168. 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.
  8. Robyn E. Lebron (January 2012). Searching for Spiritual Unity...Can There Be Common Ground?. CrossBooks. p. 532. ISBN 978-1-4627-1262-5. Retrieved 2013-09-08.
  9. "As an atheist I'm rather on difficult ground here, but presumably this is what a Christian believes." The Dark Materials debate: life, God, the universe... (interview of Pullman by Rowan Williams),, March 17, 2004 (Accessed November 12, 2007).
  10. Miller, Laura. "'Far From Narnia'" (Life and Letters article). The New Yorker. Retrieved 31 October 2007. he is one of England’s most outspoken atheists. ... He added, “Although I call myself an atheist, I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in and I cannot escape those early influences.”
  11. "Sympathy for the Devil by Adam R. Holz". Plugged In Online. Retrieved 14 September 2013. I suppose technically, you'd have to put me down as an agnostic.

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