Pure Atheism vs Skeptical Atheism

Quite some time ago I noticed that all atheists do not approach nonbelief the same. I, for one, was first a doubter, then an agnostic, then an atheist who still believed in woo, then a full on skeptic and atheist. One of my new friends on Facebook, Cursus Walker, put it clearly the other day in a strange conversation a bunch of atheists had in a new group I joined called People for the Ethical Treatment of Atheists. (lol!)

Cursus Walker said, "I make a distinction between Pure and Skeptical Atheism. The former refers only to lacking belief in gods, while the latter extends the attitude to all supernaturalism."

I couldn't agree more! I like the terms and thought I'd share them with you.

Pure Atheism: A lack of belief in gods.

Skeptical Atheism: A lack of belief in all things supernatural.

As a skeptical atheist, I have trouble understanding how people can believe in ghosts, ESP, life after death, or anything along those lines, while not believing in any gods. So the concepts aren't mutually exclusive. But it still amazes me to run into atheists who use no skepticism or logical reasoning when it comes to supernatural woo. Can't you just feel the cognitive dissonance?

And why do you think that is? Is it a need for comfort? Is it fear of the unknown and death? Is it ignorance in science and the laws of nature? All of the above? Probably.

Of course, as synchronicity would have it, I stumbled upon a QualiaSoup video (thanks to my awesome husband) shortly after and it was so good I have to share it with you here. It's kind of relevant, but excellent in its own right. About 10 minutes long.

Putting Faith in its Place


  1. My progression was almost exactly the same, Neece... starting around age 13. Even after deciding I didn't believe in a god, I'd check out library books on ESP, astral projection, etc. It was quite a few more years before I conciously acknowledged that it was all woo, but I think the idea was hovering around in my brain just out of reach the whole time.

    I forget the original subject, but another atheist friend and I got talking about ghosts and he send me a slideshow of pictures of supposed ghost sightings. I was chuckling at them, most easily explainable, others trickier, and he asked if I thought they were real. I said no and he looked surprised. He asked, "You don't believe in ghosts?" (Now it was my turn to look surprised). I smiled and said, "No. Why would I?" He explained that, since I was so open-minded, he was surprised. He DOES believe in ghosts, though he and his wife are staunch atheists when it comes to gods and are also skeptical about many other woo'ish things.

    I found it odd and amusing. :-)

    Losing the belief in all things supernatural is comforting in a number of ways. It also allows me some self-amusement... like when I'm walking through my dark house at night and get that creepy feeling that I'm being watched (by a ghost) and, even though it's tough to shake the creepy feeling, I am, at the same time, amused at my reaction and even, to a point, understanding of the biological processes that cause the reaction.

    I like that. :-)

  2. Great video, love that series.

    As for Pure v Skeptical atheism, I don't think the distinction is quite right. Other than the fact Skeptical Atheism is a bit wishy-washy, it misses the inescapable logic: if you don't believe, no matter how strong or weak your skepticism, you are - by definition - a non-believer. Therefore, an atheist.

    Richard Dawkins stunning TED talk describes this very argument so elegantly I won't belabour it here. But, suffice to say, his point is there's no such thing as agnosticism really, instead it's the historical associated social approbrium which has caused people to shy away from proclaiming themselves full-fledged non-believers.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Dan. :)
    I agree that losing the belief in all things supernatural is comforting. But I think many people wouldn't agree, unfortunately.

  4. Thanks for the link to the TED talk with Dawkins. I hadn't seen that one. But I wonder if you read the article I wrote.
    This is about the supernatural and belief in that even when you're an atheist. It's about atheism, nothing to do with agnosticism.

  5. Ah, indeed, I did leap to the next conclusion, apologies. I guess I don't quite get the concept of there being different types of atheism. I've seen it as a binary concept, therefore belief in the supernature is irrelevant. It's all part of the same whole.

  6. I agree with you, except I too, went through the process of first being an atheist who still held supernatural beliefs, then finally becoming a skeptical atheist. It's funny what kinds of cognitive dissonance the human mind can withstand.

  7. anti_supernaturalistApril 25, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    How to be an anti-supernaturalist: stop confusing names with things
    There are no supernatural phenomena, only supernatural interpretations of phenomena.

    a thought experiment in freedom of conscience you can try at home

    Dare to exercise your Constitutional rights to disbelief and to be free from religion. See what happens when you reject “spiritual discourse”, that is, stop indulging in the linguistic fallacy that every noun (name) is the name of something.

    Welcome to anti-supernaturalism. First, there would be no supernatural agents, locations, states, or events:

    1. No supernatural agents: minds, souls, spirits, ghosts, godlings, gods, God (Allah, YHVH), cosmic soul, the absolute.
    2. No supernatural locations: hell, purgatory, heaven, buddha realms, moral world order, Platonic world of forms
    3. No supernatural states: the numinous, sin, grace, revelation, life after death, illumination, nirvana, buddha mind.
    4. No supernatural events: mysterium tremendum, redemption, resurrection, rapture, mystical union, karma, or reincarnation.

    Second, nothing would alter in nature: not the Universe, the Solar system, the Earth, physical events, biological events, psychological events. Humanity’s supernatural claims say nothing about nature — unless they are treated as testable hypotheses, each falsifiable.

    Third, nature itself would be neither meaningful nor meaningless. Neither a source of comfort, as in natural theology, nor a source of despair, as in existentialism. Both comfort and despair are psychological errors rooted in the same mistaken presupposition that meaning could be found by searching “the starry heavens” for divine agents or by quarrying human inwardness for moral certainties or cosmic “laws”.

    Nouns purporting to refer to supernatural things, belong to fiction, they refer to nothing. Have I been understood? There are no supernatural phenomena, only supernatural interpretations of phenomena.

    the anti_supernaturalist

    Faith, the trusting suspension of disbelief, has always been theater of the absurd. As a skeptic, all supernaturalism is beneath me. The de-deification of western culture is our task for the next 100 years.

  8. Another copy/paste rant that only mildly has anything to do with my post?

  9. Sorry to post in this old discussion, but I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I would consider myself a skeptical atheist, in that I don't believe in the supernatural. But I also don't believe in things like UFOS, conspiracies, and other nonreligious nonsense.

    Recently I've been having a discussion with someone who is an atheist, but believes in just about every conspiracy imaginable: 9/11, birtherism, global warming hoax, vaccines cause autism, NWO, etc.

    Now his argument is that most atheists aren't real atheists, in that they have faith in the government. He says that if you have a subjective mental concept of the government, then you have faith in it. To me it just sounds like he is re-writing the definition of atheism to make a point. Kind of like how theists will say that atheists have faith if they believe the sun will rise tomorrow. By watering down the definitions of atheism, faith, and religion to make his philosophical point (the guy is an extreme libertarian), he is butchering the true meaning of the words.

    So what does everyone think? How do you handle people like this?

  10. Let me get this straight... so you call yourself a skeptic, yet you believe the 9/11 story conjured up by the government? If you don't believe in "conspiracies", you don't know history...

    But we could argue such things out, present evidence and so forth. And there we have it, the crux to his argument. These things have objective evidence, in which we can all examine and evaluate for ourselves (even should we find the "wrong" answer or "right"). Supernatural and religion are based upon subjective evidence, which cannot.

    That is the difference. How do I handle people like that? Depends on what you meant there... a difference on those topics? We hash it out by I presenting my evidence and them theirs... An atheist using the No True Scotsman argument? I tell them their transgressions with logic and give the argument above.

  11. I've seen all the various conspiracy angles about 9/11, and they all fall short. A skeptic isn't someone who supports whatever the minority position is, but someone who bases their beliefs on the best available evidence.

    But yeah he seems to have a "holier than thou" attitude, which is odd for an atheist.