"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Friday, January 20, 2012

Atheism versus agnosticism versus theism versus....

Today, we had the second day of the Philosophy of Religion class. Things are going pretty smoothly, although one student made a comment at some point about atheism being "another religion" because "it is the belief that there is no god". All of my atheist readers are probably groaning, while all of my theist readers are wondering what the big deal is.

Well, one of the arguments that theists sometimes try to make is that atheism is "just another religion" or -- worse -- that atheism requires "more faith" than theism. That last point is one that Ray Comfort repeatedly spouts. In Keller's The Reason for God, that author contends that disbelief is a faith since it relies on premises that are not empirically provable (or so Keller argues.) C. S. Lewis seems to think something along the lines of the "more faith" argument when he states that atheism is "too simple" (in Mere Christianity.)

Regardless, the "just another religion" argument is strange. Do theists think that calling atheism "another religion" is a reason for rejecting atheism? But if so, wouldn't this have the implication that one should reject theistic beliefs? Or is the argument that atheism is somehow no better than theism, so that atheists shouldn't be critical of theism? Furthermore, the "atheism requires more faith" argument seems to fly in the face of any theist who tries to claim faith as a virtue (of course, the rhetorical strategy employed with the "more-faith" argument is that theism is the more reasonable position since it requires less faith. But wouldn't this mean that no faith would be the most preferable?) All of these seem to be non-sequitors or to be self-refuting with regards to the rejection of atheism.

There is an important reason that atheism -- however one defines it -- isn't a religion. This is because theism isn't a religion either. Theism is a collection of many different religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) Likewise, atheism -- if anything -- would be a collection of many different religions. Certainly, some anthropologists and sociologists would classify Secular Humanism as a religion (though most would not.) Some theologians have tried to call the New Atheist movement a religion, much to the chagrin and dismay of New Atheists (see, for example, Keller's book The Reason for God.) There are forms of Buddhism which deny the existence of any sort of gods, so those would be atheistic as well. Regardless, belief (or not) in any gods doesn't make or break a religion; religions are simply more diverse than that, so just noting that atheism is some sort of stance on the God-question doesn't make atheism a religion.

The history is pretty well recounted in the introductory portions of John Shook's "The God Debates" (which, incidentally, is a decent textbook, though it's biased towards the atheist position.) The term "agnostic atheist" dates to at least the 19th century, and is related to concerns about the knowledge/belief distinction. Here's how the distinction is usually made:

Theist: The positive belief that there is a god. This is from the conjunction of the Greek words "theos" ("God") and the suffix "-ist" ("believer in"), so that the word "theist" literally means "believer in God".

Gnostic theist: One who self identifies as both knowing and believing in the existence of at least one god. This is the position of many theists, examples including protestants (such as presuppositionalists) who take the existence of god to be self evident or to be properly basic. Some theists believe that the existence of God is just something that all humans intrinsically know, and that anyone who claims to be an atheist is, for some reason, lying to themselves and to others (Ray Comfort takes this position.) Any one who argues that the non-existence of God is self contradictory (such as those who make transcendental arguments) would also be gnostic theist. "Gnostic theist" is partially derived from the Greek "gnosis" -- i.e. the word for knowledge.

Agnostic theist: One who self identifies as believing that there is a god, but not knowing with absolute certainty that one exists. It's unclear how many theists  take this sort of a position. Here, the word "agnostic" is formed from the conjunction of the prefix "a-" ("not") and the word "gnostic" -- literally meaning "no knowledge".

Atheist: The lack of a belief that there is a god. This could either involve the active belief that there is no god or the suspension of belief that there is one until proper justification (of some kind) is presented. Here again we see the prefix "a-" conjoined to the word "theist", literally giving us "not a believer in God" or "godless".

Agnostic atheist: One who doesn't knows for sure whether or not there is a god (i.e. they lack knowledge) but lacks a belief that there is.

Gnostic atheist: One who knows for sure that there are no gods and who believes that there are no gods.

Apatheist: One who doesn't care about the God-question; i.e. they are indifferent to whether any gods exist.

Ignostic: One who holds that the God-question is incoherent, or, at the very least, that they don't know what it means. Since they do not what it means to confirm, deny, or be unsure about the existence of God, they do not call themselves atheists, agnostics, or theists. The logical positivists held this position, since they thought all metaphysical statements lacked semantic content. Technically, if one claims that God-statements are without semantic content, then one is said to be a theological noncognitivist. Rudolf Carnap stated explicitly that he was ignostic, but then went on to say that for all practical purposes, he was an atheist. A.J. Ayer had similar sentiments. This category isn't broadly well known even in atheist circles; I was present when a person asked Richard Dawkins how he felt about ignosticism, and Dawkins had to confess that he had never heard of it.

There are other ways of breaking this down too; one often hears of weak and strong atheism. The weak atheist claim being roughly something like agnostic atheism and the strong atheist claim being something like gnostic atheism. It is worth noting that there are very few gnostic atheists, if any (in a large survey that I performed, it was exceedingly difficult to identify *any* gnostic atheists.) In the sociology/philosophy of religion, the typology of atheism is an active subject of research. Some examples are the schemes worked out by George Smith and by Edward Feser.


  1. Don't forget that i identify as a gnostic atheist! So, incidentally, does Crommunist, for pretty much the same reason.

    The atheist/agnostic distinction increasingly strikes me as vacuous — not in that there cannot be a logical distinction, but in that the reason for making the distinction seems to be predominantly cosmetic. That is, self-identified atheists and agnostics tend to agree on their level of certainty about the existence of a deity when pressed: namely, that it cannot be known in the same way that origins of natural phenomena can be known, but that there is little or no reason to believe in it in the first place.

    Richard Carrier wrote a piece i enjoyed that goes one step further: Logically speaking, there exist gods (well, one may conjure descriptions of gods) in which every atheist or agnostic positively disbelieves and with respect to which every atheist or agnostic is strictly agnostic, respectively (provided, in both cases, that they are not being flagrantly illogical). I'd be glad to have your take on it!

  2. I definitely see the issue here with your seperations of our so-called faiths... We in Roanoke, have been having many issues on what to label ourselves as a whole. I personally prefer the Atheist name because there is not a question among the ignorant (Southern Baptist), on what the definition is on my chosen label. If you tell a Southern Baptist that you are a Agnostic or a Secular Humanist, the vast majority of these people have no idea what you just said. If it isn't on a pack of Marlboro's or at the bottom of a Busch Light bottle, these freaks are just gonna get dip spit on their shirt trying not to act stupid and think to themselves, "Jim-Bob, this fecker is speaker mexican..." That is never good in a trailer park. Just run!
    But honestly. I think that we as a society are trying so hard to label ourselves that we over complicate situations and we alienate potential allies in doing so. Agree? Or am I missing the mark here?

  3. Atheismbyfire,

    Of course it wasn't Primitive Baptists that I had in mind when I wrote this (incidentally, that's not a pejorative on them; "Primitive Baptist" is a technical term used to describe a particular kind of Baptist Christianity that appears in certain rustic parts of the Bible Belt. You can look them up on Wikipedia.) Nor was it the Southern Baptists more broadly construed.

    However, when we communicate even within the movement, we need to know what we mean by particular words. Some of the descriptions I gave here are less controversial than others, but there is, as yet, no completely uniform agreement on what terms mean or how to distinguish them from each other. When we discuss things even with more sophisticated theologians, what we should not do is to simply accept their definitions of our identities. We are the ones who get to own our conceptions of who were are and what we believe (or don't believe.) As such, when the Washington DC Evangelists (above) labels this post with the pejorative term "sniglet", we should be rightfully offended.

    Besides, it is standard academic practice to provide clear and concise definitions for the terms that one uses, and most emphatically to *not* simply use the dictionary. The dictionary is extremely problematic for academic use, and so we spent a great deal of time in philosophy and mathematics courses teaching students how to come up with good definitions of the terms they use. The post here is really too short to have done a good job in that sort of sense, but other people have done that work. What is provided here is simply a summary of a view that I happen to agree with.

  4. I see what you are putting down brother... My point is really that we as Atheists, are such a small group and other Atheists find themselves entangled in the web of not wanting to be evangelical like the Christians. So much so that they will search or seek a different label to separate themselves even further from the "sheeple". As in us here in Roanoke (SHOR). Some of us here are so afraid of being forthright and in your face that we become complacent and lackadaisical to the point of going full circle to where we do not want to be... Sheeple. I feel as if I am ranting here... Let me think about this a little more.