Atheism and Agnosticism

By: Michelle Zorzella

Atheism can be generally understood as the negation or denial of theism. There is therefore no necessity for the atheist to believe no gods exist—only to have reasons for denying their existence. Agnosticism on the other hand, neither asserts or denies the existence of divine beings. More precisely, it can be described as indecision or the suspension of judgment concerning the existence of gods. How then can agnostic atheism be understood?

Scottish philosopher Robert Flint (1838–1910) provides one of the earliest references to the increasingly popular concept in his 1887–1888 Croall Lecture on Agnosticism. Flint, though he dismisses the idea agnosticism is inherently atheistic, acknowledges it may be and often is combined with atheism. An agnostic, believing proof of gods existence to be an impossibility, is consequently also an atheist who does not believe in any gods. Flint draws the following distinction between dogmatic, critical and agnostic atheism:

An atheist may deny that there is a God, and in this case his atheism is dogmatic, not agnostic; or he may refuse to acknowledge that there is a God simply on the ground that he perceives no evidence for His existence, and finds the arguments which have been advanced in proof of it invalid : and in this case his atheism is critical, not agnostic… If he go farther, and, after an investigation into the nature and reach of human knowledge, ending in the conclusion that the existence of God is incapable of proof, cease to believe in it on the ground that he cannot know it to be true, he is an agnostic and also an atheist – an agnostic-atheist – an atheist because an agnostic. 1

Today, Flint’s notion of agnostic atheism is commonly known as strict or absolute agnosticism, that which asserts knowledge of gods nature and existence cannot be realized though our limited human reason. Flint alludes to the writings of Thomas H. Huxley (1825–1895) who coined the term agnostic in the late nineteenth century. Huxley defines the principal of agnosticism in his essay Agnosticism and Christianity: “This principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.” 2 Huxley believed that while others seemed to have more or less solved the question of existence, he was sure he had not, and confident that the problem was insoluble. Like Flint, Huxley denies that agnostics are necessarily atheists, and argues negative points should only be fixed that follow from the “demonstrable limitation of our faculties.” 3 As Michael Martin is careful to point out in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification,

It should be clear that agnosticism understood this way does not entail atheism of even a negative sort, although it is compatible with it… Huxley’s agnosticism would entail negative atheism only if the existence or nonexistence of God was incapable of proof and it was assumed that one should not believe or disbelieve something unless it was capable of proof or disproof. 4

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Fig 1: rendition of common visualization used to illustrate the distinction between agnosticism and gnosticism.

Flint’s treatment of agnostic atheism seems to accompany a Humean skepticism in which the contents of Metaphysics are regarded as “nothing but sophistry and illusion.” 5 Hume (1711-1776) famously argued in A Treaties Of Human Nature that “…tho’ we must endeavour to render all our principals as universal as possible… ’tis still certain we cannot go beyond experience ; and any hypothesis, that pretends to discover the ultimate original qualities of human nature, ought at first be rejected as presumptuous and chimerical.” 6 This varies considerably from the empirical or weak agnostic skepticism widely held by mainstream agnostic atheists that doubt the information at present is sufficient to positively determine any god exists. Agnostic atheism in popular culture bares stronger resemblance to what Flint understands as critical atheism, and is more in keeping with the skepticism of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who argued in response to Hume: “…though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience.” 7 On this view, an agnostic atheist is defined as one who does not believe in gods, but does not claim to know whether or not they actually exist. They argue that the reason they withhold belief is due to a lack of evidence; that is to say that the burden of proof has not been satisfied in order to justify belief in the existence of gods. To better gain sense of agnostic atheism accordingly, it is appropriate to examine the way in which proponents define each term respectively. Atheism should not be regarded as disbelief, but as a lack of belief in gods– the difference being that it neither asserts belief or disbelief. Alone, such a definition of atheism may not clearly distinguish itself from agnosticism. It is therefore useful to consider the latter as skepticism, or as an attitude of doubt towards epistemic propositions. Agnosticism then is a theory which teaches one to doubt or disbelieve in our ability to posses knowledge (Flint, I. 16). In practice, it is not a principle which precludes atheism or theism. Both may exist in combination with agnosticism (or gnosticism) depending on ones commitment. fig 1

It is worthwhile to consider some criticisms of mainstream agnostic atheism. Does an agnostic atheist lack belief towards the nonexistence of gods? Without variance, if the agnostic atheist is consistent they should also concede that the reason they do not assert gods do not exist is due to a lack of evidence. Surely, it would not be appropriate to draw any conclusion in the absence of evidence other than to withhold judgment. Why then, not hold agnosticism strictly? And if instead the agnostic atheist is certain there are no good reasons to believe gods exist and no evidence they do, why not hold atheism strictly?

Some have tried to reconcile this issue by arguing agnosticism deals with knowledge, while atheism and theism are concerned with belief. Considering knowledge as used in its classical sense, that being justified true belief and belief as an attitude towards a proposition, it is difficult to comprehend such reasoning. Traditionally it is thought that knowledge is a type of belief, thereby insinuating this distinction is fundamentally superficial. It is also worth acknowledging that perhaps not everyone who accepts theism does so because they believe it. It may be that one holds to a god notion as a result of indoctrination. It is also possible, similar to what Pascal argues, that one chooses to accept gods exsitence for its perceived benefits. An atheist likewise may not necessarily deny that gods exist because they believe the proposition is false, but for practical reasons.

Arguably the most significant problem arises in attempting to redefine atheism broadly. They argue that atheism is not disbelief or denial, but lack of belief in gods. For argument sake suppose—as such atheists have—that disbelief is not the same as lack of belief in that it neither asserts belief or disbelief. Does not an agnostic also qualify as one who lacks belief in the existence of gods? Why not then hold agnosticism strictly? Such a definition not only trivializes atheism, but has become so broad that it fails to be meaningful. Even more, it fails to properly differentiate atheism from agnosticism. New Atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris once remarked, “‘atheist’ is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology… atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as ‘non-racism’ is not one.” 8 He adds that “atheism is not a worldview” and that “we should not call ourselves ‘atheists.'” Harris’ suspicion is warranted considering atheism as lack of belief. Perhaps a more useful definition should be offered in its place.

Certainty, there are practical ways atheism can be defined. Emphasis should focus on ways in which attitudes vary to help clearly separate atheism from agnosticism while allowing each term to preserve its usefulness. Huxley for example, despite what can be described as a lack of belief in the existence of gods, did not accept theism or atheism at least within his practical reasoning. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this statement:

Henceforward, I might hope to hear no more of the assertion that we are necessarily Materialists, Idealists, Atheists, Theists, or any other ists, if experience had led me to think that the proved falsity of a statement was any guarantee against its repetition. 2

Whereas the agnostic neither asserts or denies having good reasons to believe gods exist and is unable to make any positive determination, an atheist admits to having sufficient reasons to deny the existence of gods. A mainstream agnostic atheist then is simply, as Flint suggests, a critical atheist.


[1] Flint, Robert. “Agnosticism: The Croall Lecture for 1887–88.” William Blackwood and Sons, 1903. Page 48-51.

[2] Huxley, Thomas. “Agnosticism and Christianity” 1899.

<http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE5/Agn-X.html#note1&gt;

[3] Huxley, Thomas. “Agnosticism.” 1889.

<http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE5/Agn.html&gt;

[4] Martin, Michael. “Atheism: A Philosophical Justification.” Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990.

[5] Hume, David. “An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” 1748.

[6] Hume, David. “A Treaties Of Human Nature.” 1739. XX.XXI.

[7] Kant, Immanuel. “The Critique of Pure Reason.” 1781.

[8] Harris, Sam. “The Problem with Atheism.” samharris.org. October 2, 2007.

<https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-problem-with-atheism&gt;

 

 

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