Following the discussion below my post of A.J. Ayer’s book Language, Truth and Logic, I’ve been thinking a bit about the differences between soft and hard atheists. Conventionally, a ‘hard atheist’ is someone who believes that there is no God. A ‘soft atheist’ has no belief in God. Essentially, then, the hard atheist makes a factual claim about reality when they assert God does not exist, while the soft atheist only makes an assertion about the contents of their own heads when they claim that they have no belief in God.
The distinction is important because atheists in argument will very often assert that they are soft atheists and consequently do not need to present any positive arguments for the non-existence of God. To his credit, Richard Dawkins does not do this. In chapter four of The God Delusion, he presents an argument for why he thinks, in reality, there almost certainly is no God. Since his argument is about the real world rather than the inside of his head, he is undoubtedly a hard atheist (whatever he says elsewhere).
The soft atheist cannot assert that there is no God, probably or otherwise. Their beliefs clearly have no bearing on reality because they are not making a factual proposition about it. To claim as a soft atheist, “I have no belief in God and therefore God probably does not exist” is not a valid argument. But to claim as a hard atheist, "I have good reasons for believing that God does not exist and therefore he probably does not exist." is valid.
This makes being a soft atheist quite hard work. Because even if they are really careful and never let themselves think that God does not exist, they almost invariably reach other conclusions on the back of this.
For example, let’s assume I claim that God made a statue of Mary wave at me. The hard atheist can scoff because he has asserted there is no God. The soft atheist has a problem. He has no belief in God, but must admit that his lack of belief has no bearing on whether or not God made the statue wave. So he must simply say, he has no belief in the statue waving. He can’t say it didn’t (or at least, he can’t say it didn’t because God could not have done it).
So, in many cases soft atheists are actually hard atheists who have not come out. Soft atheism is often a rhetorical trick rather than a practical position to take.
Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum