Atheism vs. Agnosticism

We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. — Richard Dawkins

If you intend to argue against atheism, it is important for you to understand what exactly it is that you are arguing against; if you don’t, then you run the risk of attacking a straw-man. There are multiple flavors of atheism, some of which are often confused with the multiple flavors of agnosticism.

All of the terms below represent possible answers to the question, “Does God exist?”

  • Strong Atheism: “No.”
  • Weak Atheism: “Probably not.”
  • Empirical Agnosticism: “I don’t know.”
  • Strict Agnosticism: “I don’t know. And by the way, neither do you, so drop it and let’s talk about something more important.”

Many people, upon entering into their first arguments with atheists, complain that these definitions aren’t correct, so let me head-off some of the more common complaints.

Complaint #1: Why do we need this strong/weak distinction at all? Isn’t atheist enough? These different answers to the question, “Does God exist?” are distinct in very important ways, so we need some way to distinguish between them. The terms I have listed above are the generally-accepted ones for this type of discussion (e.g., see http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/intro.html). For example, it makes perfect sense to ask a strong atheist for hard evidence for the nonexistence of God, but it makes no sense to ask for such evidence from the weak atheist. The weak atheist doesn’t claim to be able to prove that God doesn’t exist… he claims that it is more reasonable to believe that God doesn’t exist than it is to believe that God does exist.

Complaint #2: But what you are calling weak atheism is actually agnosticism. To examine this claim, we need to look at a little history. Prof. T.H. Huxley introduced the term agnostic to describe a very specific, very strict philosophical position that rejected both atheism and theism. Agnosticism, according to Huxley, claims that we do not, and more importantly cannot know whether God exists or not, and thus the question is moot. Since Huxley introduced the term, however, it has slipped in common usage to mean, “I don’t know,” rather than, “we cannot ever know,” hence the distinction between strict and empirical agnosticism. Both of these meanings, however, lack an important characteristic that is central to weak atheism: weak atheists have adopted the position that God doesn’t exist. That position is provisional (i.e., subject to revision upon finding new evidence), but it is a position nonetheless.

Complaint #3: Atheism implies a belief that X (for any number of possible Xs); your definitions, particularly the one for weak atheism, don’t include that. That’s right, they don’t. Atheism, strictly, is a-theism, which means, “lacking theism.” In that broad sense, it is important to understand what is meant by the term theism in order to get a sense of what it is that atheists are “lacking.” While theism itself can have multiple meanings, the most commonly accepted definition is a belief in a God that is personal and active in the governance of the world. Historically, theism has been contrasted with deism, in which God is not active in the governance of the world, meaning that God set up the universe and then has been hands-off ever since; this is colloquially often described as the “Watchmaker” God. Atheism, in this broad sense of “without theism,” could be construed to encompass anything that lacks a belief in a personal God. This would include people who think there is no God at all, deists (since their God isn’t a personal God), and even a chair or a rock (since they lack all beliefs). Although this is a perfectly consistent set of definitions, many atheists, myself included, don’t find this broad definition particularly useful, and hence use it to describe people who lack a belief in gods of any kind. This is an important point. Atheism says almost nothing about what a person believes. It says something important about what he doesn’t believe, but not much about what he does.

Since this website is about trying to convert me, I should make clear my own positions relative to these definitions.

  • Strong Atheism: I find this to be a philosophically indefensible position. There is no way to rigorously disprove the god of the gaps, for example.
  • Weak Atheism: I am a weak atheist. I think that the evidence that I have seen supporting the notion that god(s) exist is insufficient to support a belief in it/them. Therefore, I provisionally believe that god(s) do not exist.
  • Empirical Agnosticism: While it is strictly true that I don’t know that god(s) don’t exist, I don’t find their existence plausible, so I have adopted the weak atheist stance rather than the empirical agnostic stance.
  • Strict Agnosticism: While it is also strictly true that I don’t know and that I believe strongly that you don’t either, I think shutting down conversation on the topic is a mistake. We can operate in life without 100% certainty, and given that numerous societally-important decisions depend on our answer to the god question, I believe strict agnosticism is an unhealthy position.

Even with my definitions above, I am confident that there are readers who will attribute beliefs to me that the term “atheist” doesn’t imply. Please consider the following points:

  • Is an a-Republican necessarily a Democrat? No… he/she could be Libertarian, Communist, or even (gasp) not identify with a party at all.
  • Consider the question, “Is George W. Bush currently eating a roast beef sandwich?” I have no evidence one way or the other, so I lack belief. I am agnostic with regards to that question. Now suppose that question were asked at 3:00 in the morning. While I still have no evidence one way or the other, I find it unlikely that he is awake and eating specifically that sandwich at that time of night. I have a provisional stance on the question based on my estimations of the likelihoods involved. I am a weak atheist in that case. I would not say, “Bush is not eating a roast beef sandwich.” I would say, “Bush is unlikely to be eating a roast beef sandwich.” If I had seen a news report half an hour earlier that Bush had been taken to the hospital due to a massive coronary, I would be a strong atheist on the question. I would in fact say, “Bush is not eating a roast beef sandwich.”
  • These definitions rely to some extent on related concepts of belief vs. faith. I will have a future post on this topic.
  • Atheist is not the same as antitheist.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: New document (Atheism vs. Agnosticism), and site status | Convert The Atheist

  2. Pingback: Upcoming topics | Convert The Atheist

  3. Pingback: Getting dialog going: Preview of next document concerning belief and faith | Convert The Atheist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s