Relationship of agnosticism to theist/atheism

Discussion in 'Comparative Religion' started by James R, Jan 4, 2021.

  1. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    For me, atheism and agnosticism are about different things. Thus, I describe myself as an agnostic atheist.

    Atheism/theism is about what a person believes. If s/he is convinced that there is a god (or gods), s/he is a theist. If not, s/he is an atheist.

    Agnosticism, on the other hand, is an opinion or stance concerning the importance of evidence. It is the idea that we shouldn't be convinced of something unless and until there is sufficient evidence to justify the belief.

    It is possible to be an agnostic theist, just as it is possible to be an agnostic atheist. An agnostic theist would be a person who is convinced that God exists and who also believes there is sufficient evidence to warrant that belief.
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  3. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    Yes, I by and large agree.

    I think that I would say that atheism is an ontological belief, a belief that 'God' does not exist.

    And agnosticism seems to me to be more of an epistemological belief, a belief about what can and can't be known. 'God' in this case, putative transcendental realities more generally.

    I think that those apophatic tendencies are often the most philosophically interesting varieties of theism. I'm personally interested in the neoplatonic tendencies in Christianity, as exemplified even today by some varieties of Eastern Orthodox theology. I like the pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Eriugena. The rest of this post will be comments about that. (It doesn't have very much to do with biological science, so feel free to move it to the religion forum if you like.)

    Yes, I'd put myself in that category. I'm an agnostic in the sense that unlike Write4U, I know that I don't possess the secrets of the universe. I don't have the answers to the big metaphysical questions (assuming that there even are answers). What's more, I don't think that any other human being does either. (Which makes me a 'hard agnostic' I guess.) I don't know why there is something rather than nothing (I don't believe that Krauss knows either), I don't know where the laws of physics came from and I don't know why reality seems rational and orderly or why reality seemingly conforms to logic and mathematics (I don't believe that Tegmark does either).

    So if we define 'God' as 'first-cause' or 'ultimate ground of being' or 'source of cosmic order', then I'd have to say that I don't have a clue what the answers are. So I like to keep the possibilities open unless I have a convincing reason to exclude them. That's one (of several) reasons why I battle with the atheists. They often seem to me to pose as if they know far more about the ultimate nature of reality than I think that any human being knows. (As we see in this thread.)

    This is the point of that little proof of the existence of God that I posted in a couple of other threads. Defined a particular way, God can be logically proven to exist given some premises that many people won't want to reject (the principle of sufficient reason, the reality of the universe etc.) Unfortunately for the theists, whether we choose to call it 'God' or not this strategy doesn't deliver up a religious deity, but only the unknown answer to some metaphysical questions. So unlike the atheists, I'm not fighting belief in the existence of God per se. I'm more interested in how the word 'God' is conceptualized.

    But... having said that, I'm almost certain that the more familiar named and personalized religious deities, the Bible's Yahweh, the Quran's Allah or any of the Hindu deities don't have much of anything to do with the answers to those metaphysical questions. So I'd have to call myself an atheist with regards to Christianity, Islam or the theistic sorts of Hinduism. I don't believe that these deities' names refer to anything in reality beyond fictional characters of a sort.

    I think that oftentimes the agnostic theists believe not only that that the word 'God' does refer, but that they also have good reason (often their own religious experience) to believe that it refers. They believe that the word 'God' refers to something indescribable that exceeds human language and concepts. So they think that they know that God exists, but that they can't say much of anything about what God is. They can only talk about God's effects in the phenomenal realm and in their lives particularly. This kind of idea can be found in the Eastern Orthodox 'essence/energies' distinction, which holds that God is unknowable directly in essence and is only known through his energies, through the effects that he causes.

    This sort of agnostic theist would say that none of our descriptive vocabulary applies to reality's Source, to what God actually is. So agnostic theism in this sense isn't only about lack of evidence (though that's certainly part of it), it's also about whether human cognition is up to the task of cognizing putative transcendent realities.

    The analogy might be to say that we don't have any idea where the laws of physics, logic, mathematics etc. originally came from or why they exist (analogous to knowledge of the God/the Source's essence) but we can know how logic, mathematics and the laws of physics manifest themselves in our experience (the Source's results, its energies).
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2021
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  5. Write4U Valued Senior Member

    If we do know that God is unknowable, what's the use looking for it? Looking for something that cannot be found is a waste of time IMO. Mind that I am all in favor of meditation and contemplation.

    I just don't bother looking for something that cannot be found and as far as I am concerned God does not exist in my reality. IMO, it is not an elemental property of spacetime.

    QM, chemicals and their evolved complexities are elemental properties of spacetime. We deal with them every day of our lives. That's where my reality can be found, even as I know I do not possess all the secrets of the universe.
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  7. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member


    While that might be true for a few atheists, I think that most would say that they don't claim certainty about the non-existence of God.

    For me, it is conceptually possible that God exists, but there's currently insufficient evidence for me to accept that as a conclusion. In other words, it's not that I believe that God doesn't exist. I'm merely unconvinced that God exists.

    This is why many modern atheists say they "lack belief" in gods, rather than saying that they believe gods do not exist.

    As a matter of ontology, it would seem to me to be impossible ever to "prove the negative" - to give a reasonable proof of the non-existence of God. Therefore, any atheist who claims to know that God doesn't exist is pretending to know something that is unknown, in my opinion. Note that the converse is not necessarily true. It should be possible, in principle, to collect reasonable evidence to justify belief in a being or beings that fit the common definitions of "gods", if such beings exist. That theists have not managed, over thousands of years, to produce reasonable evidence of the existence of any of their gods, is another reason I do not accept their conclusion, despite acknowledging it as a logical possibility.

    I agree.

    Me too.

    I agree with you. I don't think Krauss cracked the problem. I think he tried to redefine "nothing" to suit his own argument, and it doesn't really work. As for Tegmark, I don't think he actually has any process or mechanism to offer. He seems to just have his own brand of unjustified faith.

    I agree that some atheists tend to overstate the case for the non-existence of gods.

    I don't recall your argument. I suspect, however, that the premises you are starting with must be highly questionable if they lead you to a logical proof of God.

    Why call that "God", then? How do you distinguish an "unknown answer" from no answer, or a fantasy?

    It's fine to admit there are a lot of things we don't know. I just don't know how you get from there to a higher probability that some kind of supreme being exists.

    I agree. The more specific religion becomes, the more susceptible it becomes to disproof, because it can be challenged by more testable facts (i.e. evidence). It is abundantly clear, for instance, that the bible is not the Word of God, or at least not the word of any God worth worshipping.

    Yes. The atheist response to that is to ask how they can be so sure that the effects they attribute to the deity are actually works of the deity. If somebody has a strong gut feeling that God is real, that isn't good evidence that God is real, because other people can have an equally-strong gut feeling that God isn't real. If somebody believes that God talks to them, but they can't provide any objective evidence of that occurrence, again it doesn't really stack up as reliable proof. If somebody believes that outcomes in their lives are determined by or guided by God, but they can't actually establish a causal chain from the God to the outcome, then that is similarly a poor argument for God.

    Any of these things - feelings, beliefs about personal relationship, belief that outcomes are due to God - might well feel very convincing to the theist who experiences them, but they are of little value to anybody seeking objective evidence for God.

    I don't think they can have it both ways. On the one hand, they want to use their own supposed knowledge of God's reality to justify their beliefs, while on the other hand they want to say that it is impossible for a person to use reality to either prove or disprove God. In other words, they are trying to rely on the very thing that they simultaneously claim is impossible.
  8. DaveC426913 Valued Senior Member

    I've been pondering how to express one's belief. A lot of people can't express their belief without applying all sorts of equivocations.

    So I've been working on the following:

    If you were a betting man, which way would you bet?
    A mysterious person appears out of the fog and tells you he has one million dollars for you to bet on your answer to the question "Does God exist?" If you choose right, you will get the money - no strings.
    He assures you the answer will be revealed for certain (and while you still have time to enjoy the money).
    Which way do you bet? Yes or no?

    (Of course, agnosts will question the validity of the scenario - i.e. if the answer can be known, but still...)
  9. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    I think that a lot of theists labour under the misapprehension that atheists have an ideological objection to their god.

    One question I heard a theist seriously ask some atheists recently was "If [the Christian] God was proven to exist, would you believe in Him?"

    The atheists were bemused by the question. What ever gave the theist the notion that atheists would not readily accept proof of a god, if such a thing was available?

    I think that a lot of theists also hold the mistaken belief that atheists reject God, while really believing, deep down, suppressed in their subconcious somewhere, that God is real. In other words, I think that a lot of theists have trouble getting their heads around the fact that atheists really don't believe the theists' gods exist, rather than merely pretending that the theists' gods don't exist in order to make a political statement. Thus, the theists think that even if sufficient proof was available, the atheists would still refuse to "believe in God", on principle.

    What they don't realise is that they are asking the wrong question. What they should be asking the atheists is "Would you worship [my] God if I could prove to you that He/She/It/They exists?" Obviously, that's a separate question to the one that asks whether the atheist would accept the reality of the god, were it to be reasonably established. To answer the worship question, the atheist would need to consider what the god stands for, and how the god acts, and what the god says. If the god is an evil god, or a tyrant, or a petty self-aggrandising autocrat, then it probably won't be worthy of worship, even if it exists. It might be necessary to kowtow to that kind of God, for fear of retribution, or even give the semblance of worship, but it would be wrong to dedicate oneself to the worship of any such being.
  10. mathman Valued Senior Member

    I am not a philosopher, so I define the terms as a layman. I call myself a negative agnostic. I don' believe in anything supernatural, but I am humble enough to admit I don't know everything, so I could be wrong.
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  11. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    Like Yazata I see theism/atheism as an ontilogical matter, and agnosticism as an epistemological one. But unlike Yazata, I simply see anyone who is not a theist as an atheist: if you hold the belief that God exists, or feel you know that God exists, etc, then you are a theist; if not then atheist.
    On the epistemological matter, I do not think one has to know that God is unknowable to be an agnostic. I think one merely has to themselves not know, not have the evidence, in order to be considered such. I might not have sufficient evidence to know the answer to a question yet still think the question is actually knowable.
    Some might consider the "the question is unknowable" position to be strong agnosticism, and the "I personally don't have the means to know, but it may well be knowable" position to be weak agnosticism.

    I consider myself to be an agnostic atheist. I do not have the belief/knowledge that God exists; I personally do not (currently) have the means of knowing if God exists. I am also inclined to believing that the question of God is unknowable, but I wouldn't believe it with certainty.

    To discuss some specific points raised:
    It might be that for Krauss et al the "nothing" he uses is the only one to him that makes sense. If you asked him why there was even that version of nothing rather than the absolute nothing that others might talk about, he might well simply say: "I'm sorry, I don't understand your question," as to him that version of nothing is meaningless. Like asking what happened a million years before the big bang. We can only talk about time from the moment of the BB, and similarly he (Krauss) may only be able to talk about "nothing" in the terms he uses, with anything less than that being meaningless (to him).
    I don't therefore think it's fair to say that they "don't know why there is something rather than nothing" as you/others might understand the terms, as first you would surely have to show that it is a meaningful proposition in the first place?
    In my experience you also come across the agnostic theist in those who are still in the early stages of examining their religion and their beliefs. When you discuss with them (at least in my experience) they often admit that they don't really know if God exists or not, but they have faith, and they clearly want to believe. Whether such people are agnostic theists or not, who knows.

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  12. mathman Valued Senior Member

    "ontological" and "epistemological" result in MEGO or as engineers say KISS.
  13. geordief Valued Senior Member

    Why do "atheists" get to be defined as the "negative" of "theists" ?

    Why are theists not described as "unatheists"?

    Is there such a term as "empiricists" where the holder of any particular position only ever adopts a holding position except at such times ( eg weddings,funerals, impending doom?

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    ) that instant decisions have to be made?

    Of course those decisions can be recanted if one has Trumplike qualities.
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  14. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    It's not a closely-argued philosophical decision.
    I was raised a proper, if not particularly pious, Christian.
    At age 12, I read the New testament. It was all right, except for the ethnic prejudice, until Jesus did a couple of reprehensible things. He blasted a fig tree for not having fruit on it. That was a childish tantrum - forgivable, but not at all holy. Then he sent those demons into a bunch of innocent pigs and killed them. That was unforgivable.
    Then I read the Old Testament and I thought: Why does anyone admire these mean, deceitful, violent, conceited men?? Why would anyone worship such a cantankerous, unfair, capricious deity?? It's so obviously written by the patriarchs for their own benefit!
    Then I read other mythologies. Yep, just stories written by people.
    There may be something or Someone out there, but I have no indication of it, it's not depicted in any Earth religion, and I'll probably never encounter it.
    So, you could say I'm theoretically agnostic and functionally atheist.
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  15. kx000 Valued Senior Member

    You either fight, or you face an invincible opponent, either way here we are and there would still be omnipotence.
  16. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    You could always try looking up the words if they're not simple enough for you.

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    Not quite the negative but more the absence of.
    Because "atheist" is simply a reaction to the dominant position of "theist". The purpose of Theism isn't as a rejection of atheism but to describe a worldview, one or a series of beliefs. Atheism, however, is simply the rejection of those beliefs. Atheism also doesn't describe one's philosophical position beyond that rejection, and so is fairly useless beyond it.
  17. geordief Valued Senior Member


    Or "non acceptance" if nuance is important.Atheism does lead to consequences in the real world as one is encouraged by it to ask different questions than one might if one were a theist.

    Although theists have the same questions presumably when their blanketing ideology lifts .

    I knew someone who was quite militantly theist for most of her life whose last(ish) words to me was that there was nothing to be afraid of.[/QUOTE]
  18. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    So, what's the point of going through the rigmarole, obeying the priests and paying the tithes?
  19. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    At least not straight forwardly. But they certainly imply that they do when they ridicule theists and compare belief in God to belief in Santa Claus, spaghetti monsters or whatever it is.

    In the academic philosophy of religion, 'atheist' has historically meant one who believes that 'God exists' is F. (That's how I learned it in my university philosophy of religion classes.) There was no requirement that they be 100% certain. In fact many theists would also accept that it's possible that their religious faith is wrong. Which would put atheists and theists in the same place in that respect.

    That's one of several reasons why I think that we should interpret 'faith' as commitment. Even though the atheist and the theist might agree in not being 100% certain whether or not God exists, they commit to different alternatives. The atheist behaves and believes as if God doesn't exist, while the theist behaves and believes as if God does.

    The first place that I encountered the idea that 'atheist' means one who lacks belief in God (whatever 'belief in God' means) was in the 1990's on the old usenet board alt.atheism. Though more recently, I've discovered that the idea originated with Anthony Flew, a well known and highly respected philosopher and controversialist.

    On alt.atheism the motivation for arguing this way was largely to argue that atheists have no burden of proof. They were essentially claiming a 'get-out-of-thinking-free' card merely because they were atheists.

    My own view is that anyone who hope to convince somebody else of something always has the burden of being persuasive. That applies to atheists as much as to theists.

    I found the idea that atheism is merely lack of belief disingenuous, particularly given that they were ready to ridicule and insult religion and religious people at a drop of a hat. So atheism in their minds was obviously a lot broader than merely lacking belief. There was the idea that religious belief lacks satisfactory justification, along with the idea that religious belief was bad somehow and should ideally be eliminated from human life. (One could perhaps define 'atheist' that way, as one who believes that religion is bad in some moral sense. There's almost always a negative value judgment.)

    It led to their claim that atheism is the default condition of humanity since babies are presumably born without religious ideas. And that in turn led to the idea that religious ideas are some kind of mental contagion that should be eliminated from intellectual life in the name of mental hygiene. (I think that Dawkins has argued like that with his "memes".)

    My objection (one of them) is that this definition would make rocks atheists as well, since rocks seemingly lack belief in anything. I would much prefer to distinguish the condition of having ideas about a particular topic from the condition of having no thoughts about it at all. (The status of rocks and newborn babies.) In order to be a theist or an atheist one would seem to me to have to be a suitable cognitive agent and to have adopted some kind of position (however uncertain and faith-based it might be).

    An importantly in my own case, I didn't like the way that defining 'atheist' as one who lacks belief in the existence of God threatened to collapse the distinction between atheist and agnostic, a distinction that I (an agnostic) thought important to maintain.

    This post is getting long, so I'll reply to the rest of JamesR's post later. (Then move on to Sarkus and everyone else.)
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  20. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    Okay - then I should clarify, to avoid you repeating yourself unnecessarily: my take on atheism is that it be a considered position - so as to avoid rocks (and I guess babies) being considered such. I omitted this point earlier, which your post reminded me of.

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  21. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    That puts it rather in contrast to religionists, who often hold their position without any consideration and often insist that babies are 'naturally' religious. (I've never heard the argument about rocks.) This tendency may help to account for the tendency of some atheists to mock such belief.
  22. C C Consular Corps - "the backbone of diplomacy" Valued Senior Member

    Either thought orientation requires knowledge of the deity concept. For instance, an innocent who has never been introduced to the ideology of Dfnerism on planet Saithsenroo is neither for nor against. Nor skeptical (suspended belief).
  23. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member


    Historically, the academic philosophy of religion has been written largely by theists, not atheists. If theists get to write the dictionaries, should we be surprised if they define "atheism" to suit themselves?

    The devil is in the detail. While there may be "many", in terms of raw numbers, I'm not sure sure there'd be "many" in terms of overall proportion of theists.

    In my experience, if you ask your average theist (whatever that is) how confident he or she is that his/her god is real, most of them initially report "100%".

    I don't like the word "faith", for reasons I have previously explained. The word tends to get used in two very different ways. One way of having "faith" is to have confidence based on past experience of reliability. The other way is to pretend to know stuff you don't actually know. It's very useful in discussions like this one for theists to try to blur the boundaries between those two meanings, and using the same word for both things is such a convenient way to do that.

    Yes. The difference is that it is rational to act as if God doesn't exist, until there is some good evidence that He/She/It does exist. The alternative is to have the second kind of "faith" that I mentioned above.

    Rather than trying to lump all atheists into a single basket (because we're a diverse lot), I will speak for myself. I have never set out to persuade anybody that (their) god doesn't exist. I have often set out to prompt them to question whether the reasons they believe their god exists are sufficient to justify that belief. Again, speaking only from my own experience, a lot of theists typically don't spend a lot of time - or any time - wondering if their god is real. In most cases, they believe in the god(s) their parents believed in - the god(s) they were taught about as children. They assume that since people they trusted said it was real, it must be real. Some theists also add personal feelings into the mix. They feel in their guts that their god(s) is/are real - possibly misattributing certain experiences to the god(s) - and that helps to bolster their belief.

    Again, speaking only for myself, I think that the "badness" of religion depends on many factors. Some religions are worse than others, in promoting immoral behaviours in their followers, for instance. But even for a single religion, the "badness" can vary among individual believers. Individuals tend to vary widely in how seriously they take their religions. Some are fundamentalists who try to take all the teachings of the religion (or the words of the holy book(s)) literally; others cherry pick and let their own morality guide them (which can also be good or bad, depending on the individual).

    In judging "badness", I tend to focus on harm caused as a result of actual behaviours related to the beliefs.

    One could imagine a hypothetical religion that promotes some deity who is only interested in peace and harmony, meditation and kindness towards all living creatures. One could similarly imagine a hypothetical religion that actively promotes the murder of all "infidels" (those who don't believe in or follow the religion), the subjugation of women, the persecution of homosexuals, etc. I'd say it would be fair to say that the second religion was "worse" than the first, in that it would, in all likelihood, cause more harm and suffering than the former. It could well be that the second religion should be "eliminated from human life", if for no other reason than to protect the victims of its devout followers.

    I'm fairly sure it is a fact that babies don't believe in god(s) until after they are taught about them. If you prefer to define atheism and theism as beliefs held consciously, though, I don't have a big problem with that.

    One can certainly ask the question as to whether the world might be a better (safer, happier?) place without religion.

    Dawkins' invention of the idea of a meme made no value judgments. The original idea was that a meme is a kind of replicator - an idea that propagates from mind to mind, with some idea of "survival of the fittest", analogous to biological natural selection. Dawkins suggested a successful meme might be something like a catchy tune, or a good joke. He also suggested that religions might be memes. He certainly did not, at that time, advocate for the "elimination" of any memes - religions included.

    As I said, I'm very happy to accept that atheism and theism are beliefs held by minds. Since rocks don't have minds, I accept that they don't have believes either, so theistic rocks and atheistic rocks don't exist.

    We're in agreement, then.

    I've already commented on that. For me, it doesn't collapse the distinction at all.

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