Atheism, agnosticism and theism: the landscape, part 1

In the Socrates Café (Sydney) talk based on my paper “Could God have set up Darwinian Accidents?”, I addressed about 70 people, only a couple of whom were philosophers (hi Rachel, hi Tim). I like doing these talks, because they allow me to make what is otherwise fairly dry technical material relevant to folks. It’s not that you don’t give a good argument, but that you have to think hard about how to communicate.

But such talks attract a, shall we say, “element”. You know these folks. They have a manic gaze of such intensity that it is clear they would like to use their moral purity to drill a hole through your skull, and they are always the first to come up and tell you where you went wrong. Usually they are selling something. It might be something reasonable, like a particular theological position (in this context that is reasonable as I was addressing theological problems), or it might be something about resonances and quantum frequencies of chi, or Freemasonry.

The one on Wednesday night was a Christian Believer. Her comment to me was “Why are you being so divisive? Why not just accept that God is responsible for it all?” Thanking my stars that the organiser, Tim Dean, had said at the beginning that “No ad hominems are allowed here”, I said that I was taking a conditional or hypothetical approach here, but that she was getting too personal (when she started in on my personal failings), and I moved on.

So, I can understand why it is that many atheists do not want to even give religion the semblance of intellectual respectability. It encourages these people to come out and attack, defeating the entire purpose of reasoned argument. But one can attend to religious arguments without needing to overgeneralise, oversimplify or caricature. This also extend to the definitions one uses, and of course one of the most contested is what counts as atheism.

Massimo Pigliucci has a post up “On being a fulfilled atheist” which is as usual worth reading, but I was particularly taken by the comment by Joseph T. Lapp on that post. I reproduce most of it here:

What ever the official etymology of “atheism” may be, in my experience most people who call themselves atheists are certain that there is no God. That is, they not only hold no belief in God, they hold the belief that there is no God, usually pretty darn strongly.

I know this because I like to test my ‘agnostic’ position among my atheist friends periodically, usually at atheist lectures. We tend to come to agreement only when we specifically define “God” as the supernatural personality painted by the Bible – I agree that no such being could exist.

The problem is that this isn’t a very useful position these days. Even most religious people will agree that the Bible is not literally true in all its detail. The general atheist position appears to be an assertion about the fundamentalist God. So what? Everyone thinks fundamentalists are off their rocker. It’s my experience that most Americans these days believe in more amorphous, less tangible forms God – forms that I find hard to argue with because little is claimed with certainty, or because the fuzzy beliefs are compatible with the world I perceive, even if they wouldn’t survive Occam’s Razor (which only selects pragmatic theories, not truth).

In my opinion, many of these modern amorphous, if contradictory, visions of God are potentially compatible with the universe I see. I don’t find them useful, but I have no basis for concluding their falsehood, and who knows, one of these visions might possibly have some element of truth in it. It’s for this reason that I prefer to call myself an agnostic. I find that most atheist can’t allow themselves to acknowledge that any notion that anyone calls “God” could have any chance of harboring truth.

We really need a strong set of definitions for the various flavors of non-belief. The terms we have even engender confusion among non-believers.

As long-term readers will know, I have made similar points myself, but I was never entirely happy with the way I went about it – it was too reactive and not general enough, so I would like to do a series, of which this is part one, in which I address Lapp’s points as carefully as I can. Hopefully this will help clarify and perhaps settle some concerns, raised by the other, more reasonable, audience members last Wednesday night. They wanted to know why I was an agnostic and not an atheist, and why I took religion seriously. These are important questions for everyone, not just philosophers.

I will try to fit these into my other work (like looking for a paying job!), so they may be sporadic. I anticipate the sequence will be:

1. Introducing the landscape (this post)

2. What it is to have a belief

3. The first axis: Knowledge claims

4. The second axis: Existence claims

5. The third axis: Scope and indexing

To give you an idea of what is coming, let me summarise. To be an atheist is to have no belief in a deity’s existence. To be an agnostic is to neither have nor not have a belief, because the matter is undecided (or undecideable). Some atheists have, as Lapp observed, a more positive belief: that there is no deity. These depend crucially on the scope of the claims: does the agnostic think all gods are undecideable? No, so even the most inclusive agnostic must be atheist about some gods (like the fundamentalist deity). Hence, both agnosticism and atheism are indexed to particular claims of knowledge and existence.

It follows then, that someone can be both a theist and an agnostic if one believes in a God (makes an indexed existence claim) but does not claim to know the claim is true. It follows also that an atheist need not assert an existence claim (in the negative), although many do.

This is a semantic landscape, and so of course this is an argument about terms. I will try to not argue for or against any of these views, but rather to coin some useful semantic distinctions to clear up the confusion Lapp notes among believers and nonbelievers alike. At the end I will make a comment about how we classify general positions like this.

The next post in this series: Two

24 thoughts on “Atheism, agnosticism and theism: the landscape, part 1

  1. I wonder what it means to have an amorphous vision of god. Does a vision qualify as a concept?

    I’m of the noncognitivst persuasion… Charles Bradlaugh put it better than I could:

    The Atheist does not say “There is no God,” but he says: “I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word ‘God’ is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception, and the conception of which by its affirmer, is so imperfect that he is unable to define it to me.

    So…yeah…what’s your opinion on that? (And perhaps you already plan to address that!)


  2. Oh dear, I am already confused.
    When you say “To be an agnostic is to neither have nor not have a belief” you seem to be putting the existence of agnostics in conflict with the “Law of the Excluded Middle”. Is that your intent, or is there some sense of “not have a belief” which is not just the negation of “have a belief”?


  3. Hi John. I went to that talk on Wednesday and found it very insightful. I think you summed it up for me when you came to our table and mentioned it is easier being atheist. I look forward to the upcoming installments.


  4. You’re right that it’s a “semantic landscape, and so of course this is an argument about terms.” In my own discussions with fundamentalists I’ve discovered that they use words such as “belief” with several conflated meanings, including the tacit assumption that those meanings are identical. You can’t even talk to them unless you keep that fact in mind, and avoid using the word “belief”, for instance, unless you mean holding something to be so true that even a hypothetical questioning of its truth is forbidden.

    One point about the person who asked “Why not just accept that God is responsible for it all?” Many fundamentalists seem to be like this, they don’t like open questions. That’s why they’re fundamentallly (heh) anti-science: because science is about keeping questions open, and investigating them that way.

    BTW, you do know that the ancient Romans regarded both Jews and Christians as “atheists” because they denied the existence of their whole pantheon, don’t you?


  5. It follows then, that someone can be both a theist and an agnostic if one believes in a God (makes an indexed existence claim) but does not claim to know the claim is true. It follows also that an atheist need not assert an existence claim (in the negative), although many do.

    I have a friend who’s a Jesuit priest and he claims to be an agnostic. I believe him.

    I’m an atheist and an agnostic since I don’t believe in any Gods but agree that it’s impossible to prove the negative. I’m also agnostic about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. However, in all three cases (God, Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy) the probability of their existence is so low that I don’t give it a moment’s thought in my day-to-day life. My friend the priest thinks that the existence of the Roman Catholic god is so highly probable that he spends very little time worrying about the question.

    I suppose there might be people who are so confused by the question that they agonize over whether the tooth fairy actually exists. Sometimes they look for money under their pillow and other times they are convinced that no fairies came in the night. Those people might be truly agnostic because they have not settled on whether to conduct their daily lives as though the tooth fairy existed or did not.

    There may be people who are neither atheist agnostics nor theistic agnostics. Those people conduct their daily lives as though both possibilities were reasonably probable and they just can’t make up their minds. Maybe they attend church every second Sunday.

    I don’t know any people like that but I concede that they could exist. They’re called agnostic fence-sitters.


    1. There are tooth fairies. They are also known as parents. For those children lucky enough to live with those fairies, they certainly do exist, whether or not the kids believe. However, the arguments that gods must exist whether or not people believe is just silly.


    2. Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor who delivered the invocation at Obama’s inauguration, once said that he could never vote for an atheist, someone who has decided that he doesn’t need God. Consider a parent who is too broke to buy Christmas presents for his children. He really needs Santa Claus, but believing in Him won’t deliver the goods.

      Bertrand Russell, ridiculing a remark of William James, wrote ‘I have always found that the hypothesis of Santa Claus “works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word”,’ but in the case of the aforementioned parent it does not.

      The dark side of the Tooth Fairy gets too little attention. One day I chanced upon a small wooden box in which my mother had collected baby teeth and locks of hair. That she was intending dark magic seemed obvious.


  6. I am not agnostic about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, having myself been Santa Claus at times, and, at other times, the Tooth Fairy. I do not believe in any supernatural influence in the world now, though my stopping smoking 26 years and one day ago was a miracle. I used to tell students that research (in the natural sciences) is experimental theology.

    One can’t have a fact-based opinion about what was before the Big Bang, can one? Maybe god, in some sense, maybe not.


    1. I’ve shared a couple pitchers of beer with a theoretical physicist who, along with others of that tribe, was hard at work trying to figure out what preceded the Big Bang. Turns out there are reasons to think singularities could “leak” information. Oh, although my physicist friend considers himself a Roman Catholic, he didn’t make any theological sounds during our discussion.


  7. Just a couple of comments. I think Mr. Lapp’s assessment that “most religious people do not believe the Bible is true in every detail” and that “most Americans believe in an amorphous God that is not or is not like the fundamentalist God of the Bible is overly optimistic.


    1. You may think that, but the surveys tend to support him. It is also not the case even remotely in the rest of the western world (I can’t speak to African or Asian Christianity).


  8. I am really nervous about making this comment as you all seem very smart.

    I am a Christian. That is to say that I believe in Christ. However. I find that belief is only valid if it is accompanied by some choice. I do not know if Christ is divine. But I choose his philosophy. As I understand it. Does a belief really exist if it is not manifest in some way? What does an atheist choose to manifest his belief that there is no God? I guess what I’m asking is; Is belief relevant or even possible when we are speaking in terms negatives?

    I really hope I come across as sincere.


    1. You definitions of belief here are question begging, in that they presume a Christian notion of belief, although there may be some similarities in other religions. However, if an atheist has a positive belief that there is no god, that will necessarily affect the way they live (for a start, they may not pay any attention to religiously-based prescriptions about sexuality or submission of women), so I fail to see what you argument might be. Their belief is manifest. Moreover, that is irrelevant for the taxonomy and mapmaking I am doing here: see the point made about dispositional accounts of belief in the next post in the series.

      I do not doubt your sincerity.


  9. Thoroughly looking forward to JSW expanding on this topic. Often it seems this theism/atheism asymmetry is overlooked.

    One point to clear up is whether or not the theist has in mind a god who has been sufficiently defined and named by a particular religion or philosopher.


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