Keeping it Small and Simple


Atheist or Agnostic

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , , , , , — Lorenzo E. Danielsson @ 10:38

*Sigh*.. I ended up in a little discussion over here about atheism and agnosticism. Dealing with dogmatic people, whether Christian or atheists, is obviously not much fun at all. So I’ll make a few clarifications of my viewpoint here, instead of spamming another blog.

Atheism is the denial of the existence of a god, nothing more nothing less. This is stated well here. Obviously, in order to deny the existence of some entity E, whether divine or not, you have to claim that it is possible to prove that such entity absolutely does not exist, otherwise there is no basis for the denial.

Not being able to do so would have to lead you to conclude that you cannot prove the non-existence of E but you still do not believe in it, which is what (theistic) agnosticism is (also clearly explained in the SEP article). (That is not necessarily true. One could at least conceive the idea of an agnostic who does believe.)

So how would one go about proving or disproving the existence of the entity E? To (empirically) prove the existence of E one merely has to find it. As soon as one finds just a single example of E it has been proven to exist, at least in that point in time. It becomes a lot more difficult to disprove the existence of E, especially if we claim that E can be anywhere in the universe and is mobile. That would require divine powers indeed.

A little example: suppose I ask you is there a cup in the room?. How would you be able to know? Well, you start searching the room. As soon as you find a cup, you can tell me yes, there is. But you would have to search the entire room before you could conclude that there is no cup in the room.

That is fine, but now let’s suppose I instead ask, is there a cockroach in the room? Again, you would have to search the room. If you find one you have your answer. (If you find cockroach shit you can merely conclude that it is likely that a cockroach either is there or has been there recently.) But if you don’t find one, does that mean there is no cockroach in the room, or simply that it moved around so it was never at the particular place where you were looking at the moment?

One might try to use logic to disprove the existence of gods. This has been attempted many times, but as is common with pure mind games, they easily run aground (not to mention, put you in a straitjacket). It is all too simple for somebody to come up with a counter-argument, and since neither can be verified you get stuck.

Various inductive arguments are possible, but then they still run into that little problem that Hume wrote about. We cannot use an inductive argument and then claim absolute certainty. Without absolute certainty, how do you deny?

It is possible (but unlikely) that one can sit down and work out some grand scheme that absolutely rejects the existence of any divine being(s). But that would probably take a very long time. Since I do not believe in gods and religion plays no role in my life, it is not a task I’m ready to undertake. I have better things to do with my time. Hence, I stay a non-believing agnostic.

I think many people who claim to be atheists are, from a philosophical point of view, not really atheist. They are more anti-Christian, probably outraged at the never-ending attempts by Christians to force their ideas upon others. And I fully agree, it is fucking annoying when you tell a Christian that you are not religious and their response to that is to invite you to church or some similar bullshit. Nothing pisses me off more. They should learn to respect the words “I do not believe in gods” instead of drooling over the prospect of yet another tithe-paying church member.

Theism and atheism are both absolutist viewpoints. These are excellent breeding grounds for fundamentalism and intolerance of other ideas. Agnosticism rests comfortably with the notion that one cannot know for sure, so just a little bit of humility is in order.

Further Reading

As always, don’t take my word for it. Go and read for yourself. Here are some starting points.

Stanford Encyclopdia of Philosophy – Atheism and Agnosticism: A good introduction to the subject.

Bertrand Russell – Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?: Clearly indicates the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Read the section “Proof of God”.


  1. 🙂 dogmatic people are always exhausting and indeed not much fun to discuss anything with – mainly because they are more interested in convincing you of their view than with having an actual exchange of ideas

    I figure they should just talk to themselves – a genuine, one-sided mutual admiration society 🙂

    Comment by euphonos — 2008.03.12 @ 11:07

  2. @euphonos: yeah, give them all a three-month intensive course in rhetoric and lock them up. 😀

    Comment by Lorenzo E. Danielsson — 2008.03.12 @ 12:39

  3. lol – i’d love to see that!

    Comment by euphonos — 2008.03.13 @ 06:21

  4. Atheism is not the denial of the existence of a God or gods, atheism is a lack of a belief in a God or gods. If a person has no belief on the subject of the existence of a God or gods, he is an atheist.

    Believing something and knowing something are two different things. I believe in allot of things, I know few.
    This example of a fictional surveys of fictional people that only exist in my head and wont shut up sums it up.
    Two questions asked, 1. “Do you believe that we can know whether a God or gods exist or not?” and 2. “Do you believe in God or gods?”
    Guy 1: Yes you can know if God exists or not and he does.
    Guy 2: No, you can not know whether a god exists or not but I do believe one does.
    Guy 3: You can’t know if God exists or not. As for “does God exist” I haven’t came to a conclusion.
    Guy 4: No you can not know if a god or gods exist but I don’t believe one does.
    Guy 5: You can not know whether a god exists or not but I believe that if one does there would be evidence of it and there is none so I believe that one does not exist.
    Guy 6: You can know and no one does not exist.

    Guys 1 and 2 are theists, guys 3 and 4 are week atheists, guys 5 and 6 are strong atheists, guys 2-5 are agnostics, guys 2 and 5 have opposite opinions on whether a God or gods exist or not but they are still agnostics cause knowing and believing are two different things, guys 3 and 4 are both week atheists cause they both lack a belief in a God or gods.

    Agnosticism is a separate issue from theism and atheism, Theism and atheism are about the belief and lack of belief in a god or gods, agnosticism has to do with the belief that you can know if a God or gods exist.

    Comment by Lone Wolf — 2008.03.13 @ 09:03

  5. Now that I’m convinced that you are using a different definition from the rest of the world, I fully agree with you. It is similar to if I define the word “shit” to mean “something you buy from the ice-cream man” (no, there are no drug-related hidden messages here). I can then happily go on to offer that “why don’t we go and get some shit”. You will look perplexed or disgusted, but hey, different definitions.

    As those links I added will clearly explain: atheism means “denial of the existence of a god or gods”. That is why it is called a-theism. It is the opposite of theism. It really is that simple.

    You are right that agnosticism is a different issue. You can be agnostic about a lot of things, not only invisible creators that live in the clouds.

    Bertrand Russell’s paper indicates that there may be a difference in the way a philosopher understands the word “atheist” from the way a non-philosopher understands it. Maybe that is what we have run into here (not that I have ever claimed to be a philosopher).

    You further claim that knowledge and belief are two different things. I agree. If we accept the JTB account of knowledge, or any of the other epistemological theories that it has spawned, one is a requirement for the other. In order to know something, one must believe it to be true. (it must also be true and you must be justified in your belief, but we’re not discussing theory of knowledge here, are we?)

    It does not work the other way around. One cannot say that to believe something one must know it to be true. That is nonsense. So belief is required for knowledge, but knowledge is not required for belief.

    There was a time when I called myself an atheist. But for some odd-ball reason I developed an interest in understanding “evil”. I wanted to know how things like the Holocaust could happen, so I began to read WWII history. Then the history of Vietnam, Cambodia, Palestine and other places of tragedy and destruction. For years and years I read. Somewhere it struck me that the perpetrators in each case didn’t consider themselves evil. They were just guided by absolutes. They were so rigid in their belief-system that they were mechanically able to commit horrendous acts.

    This got me thinking about myself, and I soon realized that I too had a number of very absolute beliefs, my atheism being one of them. Questioning myself, I could but conclude that “no, I do not believe in God”, but that I think it is difficult or impossible to come up with conclusive evidence that God does not exist. There is a word for that: agnosticism.

    Comment by Lorenzo E. Danielsson — 2008.03.13 @ 09:52

  6. No, you are using a definition that is a misunderstanding of what atheism is, atheism, a=not or non, theist=belief in a God or gods.

    Atheism, as a philosophical view, is the position that either affirms the nonexistence of gods[1] or rejects theism.[2] When defined more broadly, atheism is the absence of belief in deities,[3] alternatively called nontheism.

    Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods.

    Atheism is a lack of belief, the definition you using is a misunderstanding of what atheism is.
    Still don’t believe me? Ask atheists, there are plenty of atheist forums and chat rooms.

    Comment by Lone Wolf — 2008.03.13 @ 21:58

  7. And I can yet again point you to the definition in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which *explicitly* states that atheism is the denial of the existence of gods. I could add this.

    Also, interesting to note this from the Wikipedia article you quote:
    “Atheism, as a philosophical view, is the position that either affirms the nonexistence of gods[1].” Oops! That seems to be pretty much what I’ve been claiming all along.

    But I can also find several sites that define atheism as you do, or close enough. I think this is getting to outdrawn. I’m not ready to spend too much time arguing over definitions.

    I base my agnosticism on my understanding of the terms “atheism” and “agnosticism”. They are definitions that are widely accepted. They are also coherent.

    Your distinction between atheism and agnosticism may make a lot of sense to you, and if it does: cool. I’m not interested in “converting” you and I’m not sure whether you can make me accept your definitions, unless you can prove to me that they are coherent.

    I have this problem. You stated in your first comment: “Theism and atheism are about the belief and lack of belief in a god or gods, agnosticism has to do with the belief that you can know if a God or gods exist.”

    If we accept the Justified True Belief of knowledge, then S know p iff:
    1. p is true
    2. S believes that p
    3. S is justified in believing that p

    If we use “God does not exist” as the proposition and “atheists” as S we get according to what you wrote.

    1. God does not exist is true
    2. Atheists believe that God does not exist.
    3. Atheists are justified in believing that God does not exist.

    Since according to you, atheism is a belief it does not make any claims about truth, so we remove (1). So what we are left with is not knowledge, but a (possibly justified) belief. But in such a case, how on earth can guy 6 be an atheist, since what he states is a proposition and not a statement of belief?

    Guy 5, by the way should be rejected. He’s not scientific. Lack of evidence has *nothing* to do with lack of existence. The only difference between Guys 4 and 5 are a few empty words. My guess is that guy 5 has been taking too many classes in rhetoric. 😉

    Back to JTB. According to your definition of agnosticism:
    p: one cannot know whether or not God exists.
    S: Agnostics

    1. It is true that one cannot know whether or not God exists.
    2. Agnostics believe that one cannot know whether or not God exists.
    3. Agnostics are justified in believing that one cannot know whether or not God exists.

    Since I am certain of the truth of (1) and I am convinced that agnostics are justified in believing this to be true, for reasons I mentioned in the post, it would then seem that agnosticism, according to your definition is an example of justified true belief, which, as we know, constitutes propositional knowledge (at least if we claim that JTB is sufficient for knowledge).

    So, by using your own definitions I have concluded that agnosticism is knowledge, atheism little more than superstition. Since I am not religious, I cannot accept atheism.

    Comment by Lorenzo E. Danielsson — 2008.03.13 @ 23:12

  8. I should add that if you accept my definition of atheism, then atheists have a (possibly justified) belief that cannot be verified (since it is impossible to conclusively prove that gods do not exist), which means it’s still superstition.

    Comment by Lorenzo E. Danielsson — 2008.03.14 @ 00:35

  9. Again the idea that atheism is the belief that there is no go or god is a misconception of what atheism is it is simply a lack of belief in a god or gods. Again a, not or non and theism, belief is a God or gods.

    5 is an atheist cause he lack a belief in a God or gods, the fact the he believes that there is no God or gods doesn’t change that.

    You bring up science, agnosticism, atheism and theism are not scientific, there philosophical. And absence of evidence when there should be evidence is evidence of absence, for insistence, a scientists comes up with a hypothesis to explain something and makes predictions based on that hypothesis and those predictions say you should see x at y, if theres no x at y thats absence of evidence when there should be evidence thus evidence of absence and this is the thinking of Guy 5, he believe that if a god exists there would be evidence of it (of course this depend on which definition of “god” you use and in several, he is wrong) the lack of evidence then become evidence of absence.

    One thing to remember, there are two types of atheism, week atheism and strong atheism, week atheism is no belefe eather way (no beliefe in God or gods and belief that there us no God or gods), strong atheism is the belefe that there is no god.

    One thing we’re ignoring is that agnosticism, atheism, week atheism, strong atheism and theism are not mutually excursive, there are many definitions of the word “god”. Some can and has been dis-proven (Zeus,Thor, the biblical God(s)) others its harder to disprove but possible, while in some definitions its imposable to disprove the existence of a God or gods. A deistic god would be imposable to disprove, the God(s) of the bible on the other hand is easily disproven, when dealing with the Christan God, it depends on which version of the Christan God.

    Comment by Lone Wolf — 2008.03.14 @ 03:03

  10. Forgot something.
    I’m not trying to convert any ether. For 1 things its very difficult and often relays on taking people in a bad moment in there life and using that to manipulate them into belief what you think and thats just sick and wrong. Another its, I believe I’m right but that doesn’t mean I’m right. I’m just as fallible as every one else.

    Comment by Lone Wolf — 2008.03.14 @ 03:16

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