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A chart showing the relationship between the definitions of weak/strong and implicit/explicit atheism. An implicit atheist has given little or no consideration regarding the existence of deities; such an individual would be described as implicitly without a belief in gods. Explicit atheists are composed of two groups: the strong/positive variety (who explicitly deny the existence of deities), and the weak/negative (who explicitly eschew belief in gods, but do not necessarily deny the possibility of their existence).

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Implicit atheism and explicit atheism are subcategories of atheism coined by George H. Smith (1979, p.13-18). Implicit atheism is defined by Smith as "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it" (i.e., those who have not thought about the existence of deities, let alone decided against it, are de facto atheists). Explicit atheism is defined as "the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it" (those who have thought about the existence of deities and have concluded they do not believe any exist), which, according to Smith, is sometimes characterized as antitheism.[1]

Critical atheism

For Smith, explicit atheism is subdivided further according to whether or not the rejection is made on rational grounds. The term critical atheism is used to label the view that belief in God is irrational, and is itself subdivided into:

  • a) the view usually expressed by the statement "I do not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being";
  • b) the view usually expressed by the statement "God does not exist" or "the existence of God is impossible"; and
  • c) the view which "refuses to discuss the existence or nonexistence of a god" because "the concept of a god is unintelligible" (p.17).[1]

Although Ernest Nagel rejects Smith's definition of atheism as merely "absence of theism", acknowledging only explicit atheism as true "atheism", his tripartite classification of rejectionist atheism—commonly found in the philosophical literature—is identical to Smith's critical atheism typology.

Other typologies of atheism

The difference between Nagel on the one hand and d'Holbach and Smith on the other has been attributed to the different concerns of professional philosophers and layman proponents of atheism (see Smith (1990, Chapter 3, p.51-60[2]), for example, but also alluded to by others).

Everitt (2004) makes the point that professional philosophers are more interested in the grounds for giving or withholding assent to propositions:

We need to distinguish between a biographical or sociological enquiry into why some people have believed or disbelieved in God, and an epistemological enquiry into whether there are any good reasons for either belief or unbelief... We are interested in the question of what good reasons there are for or against God's existence, and no light is thrown on that question by discovering people who hold their beliefs without having good reasons for them. (p.10)[3]

So, in philosophy (Flew and Martin notwithstanding), atheism is commonly defined along the lines of "rejection of theistic belief". This is often misunderstood to mean only the view that there is no God, but it is conventional to distinguish between two or three main sub-types of atheism in this sense. However, writers differ in their characterization of this distinction, and in the labels they use for these positions.

The terms weak atheism and strong atheism (or negative atheism and positive atheism) are often used as synonyms of Smith's less-well-known implicit and explicit categories. However, the original and technical meanings of implicit and explicit atheism are quite different and distinct from weak and strong atheism, having to do with conscious rejection and unconscious rejection of theism rather than with positive belief and negative belief.

People who do not use the broad definition of atheism as "absence of theism", but instead use the most common definition "disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods",[4] would not recognize mere absence of belief in deities (implicit atheism) as a type of atheism at all, and would tend to use other terms, such as "skeptic" or "agnostic", or even the heavy-handed "non-atheistic non-theism", for this position.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Smith, George H. (1979). Atheism: The Case Against God. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus. pp. 13–18. ISBN 0-87975-124-X. 
  2. Smith, George H. (1990). Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies. pp. 51–60. 
  3. Everitt, Nicholas (2004). The Non-existence of God: An Introduction. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-30107-6.
  4. "". Retrieved 2006-03-05. 

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