In defence of strong atheism
I’ve long been of the opinion that weak or negative atheism (a lack of belief in any gods) was a rational, defensible belief, but that strong atheism, also known as positive atheism (a positive belief that there is no god) was an insupportable claim that not only overreached, but betrayed a certain degree of arrogance. (Yes, the arrogant atheist thing – it takes time to shake off all those old ideas.)
Looking at the question again, I see my error. Obviously, from a logical and philosophical point of view, it would be making a big mistake to claim that a lack of satisfactory evidence of a being means that it definitely doesn’t exist. At this point, theists usually mention black swans as something that was wrongly supposed not to exist, but for every black swan there’s a Russell’s Teapot. Beliefs don’t become any more sensible just because they can’t be conclusively falsified.
And anyway, we don’t generally deal in precise logical and philosophical terms. I’m quite happy to say that homeopathy doesn’t work, psychics are frauds, and unicorns aren’t real. Strictly, I’m wrong to show such confidence, because I haven’t exhausted all possible avenues. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, and all those beliefs could be demolished with just a single example. But if I was presented with an example that disproved my claim, I’d change my mind.
It’s easy to see a bald statement that something doesn’t work/exist as arrogant and closed-minded, but that’s not how we talk in practice. When I say unicorns aren’t real, I’m drawing an inference based on the sum total of the evidence currently available. I don’t hedge it with caveats, just like I don’t say “According to current scientific theory” before any explanation of how something works, because those assumptions can be taken as read.
Suppose I’d repeatedly investigated mediums and found them wanting. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that mediums don’t talk to the dead? It might not be watertight as a logical conclusion, but it’s hardly unrealistic. I’d be far more worried about someone in that position who blandly said that they hadn’t found any genuine mediums yet, because they sound like the words of a potential mark.
As ever, there will be quibbles about exactly how sure you should be before saying that something doesn’t exist, the correct interpretation of the available evidence, and what would be necessary to change your mind. And there are undoubtedly some strong atheists who have no interest in evidence, and would never change their minds. That’s down to them, but it doesn’t affect the principle.
When I consider strong atheism now, it seems like a fancy name for a perfectly ordinary position. The only reason I can think of for someone not to identify with strong atheism is the inevitable and tedious attempts by theists to reverse the burden of proof because “it’s a belief”.