All Atheists Are Agnostics, and Most Theists Are Too, So the Term Is Almost Meaningless

This topic is way beyond the official remit of this blog, but what the heck, I’m hoping we’ll get some interesting comments on it.

I’ve been trying to grasp the distinction between atheism and agnosticism for some time, and I’ve come to the conclusion stated in the title of this post. My reasoning follows.

Define atheism as “the view that spiritual or supernatural entities, such as God, probably do not exist.” Define agnosticism as “the view that it is not possible to know with certainty whether spiritual or supernatural entities, such as God, exist or not.” Finally, define theism as “the view that at least one spiritual or supernatural entity, such as God, probably does exist.” (The excluded category is the view that a supernatural entity, such as God, is equally likely to exist and not to exist. I’m not sure what to call this view.)

So what is the difference between atheism and agnosticism? I do not believe that any atheist would reject agnosticism as defined here. Is there any atheist who would say with 100% certainty that God does not exist? If so, please comment with a citation. I’m not aware of one.

The more controversial statement is that most theists are agnostics. Certainly, some theists would claim that they know with 100% certainty that God exists. But I wonder if they would maintain that view if they thought about it for a moment. The only way that we can be 100% certain about any proposition’s truth is that the proposition is necessarily true or necessarily false. If God is said to exist necessarily, that means that it is logically impossible for God not to exist, that God exists in all possible worlds. We cannot be 100% certain about the existence of any object of human experience, because it is always possible, however unlikely, that our experience is mistaken. But logical necessities are true by definition, i.e., features of human grammar, not entities, not objects of human experience. However, theists believe that God is an object of human experience, an entity, not a feature of human grammar. Therefore, God cannot be a logical necessity (this is the reason why the ontological argument doesn’t work). It is therefore possible, indeed plausible, that most theists realize that they can never be 100% certain of God’s existence, and therefore that they accept agnosticism. Now, some theists will probably reject the premise that human experience is fallible. They may assert that some type of human experience, such as faith, is infallible and can therefore generate 100% certainty. This claim, of course, is impossible either to prove or to refute. So I cannot claim that all theists would, on reflection, accept agnosticism as defined here, but I think that most would.

So “agnosticism” doesn’t seem to be a very useful category, if it can encompass atheists and theists. Is there another definition of the term that would be more useful? According to Wikipedia, here are some other definitions of agnosticism:

“Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle… Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” -Thomas Henry Huxley

Well, again, who would disagree with that, besides hardcore fideists?

Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not have belief in the existence of any deity, and agnostic because they do not claim to know that a deity does not exist.”

Again, I know of no atheist who would not be agnostic by this definition.

Agnostic theism – The view of those who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity, but still believe in such an existence.”

Again, how many theists would really disagree with this, if “know” means “know with 100% certainty”?

Ignosticism – The view that a coherent definition of a deity must be put forward before the question of the existence of a deity can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition is not coherent, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of a deity is meaningless or empirically untestable.[19] A.J. Ayer, Theodore Drange, and other philosophers see both atheism and agnosticism as incompatible with ignosticism on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism accept ‘a deity exists’ as a meaningful proposition which can be argued for or against.”

If these guys are professional philosophers, this must be a total bastardization of their claims. The claim that “at least one entity not bound by natural laws exists” is obviously not logically impossible. It’s not self-contradictory. There may be some definitions of deities that are self-contradictory, like “a deity is a square triangle,” but to show that meaningless claims about meaningless entities are necessarily false is not to prove that no supernatural entity in the aforementioned sense exists.

Strong agnosticism – The view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities, and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, ‘I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you.'”

Again, if “know” means “know with certainty,” who would disagree with this? We’re all (almost all) strong agnostics about everything.

Weak agnosticism – The view that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until/if any evidence is available. A weak agnostic would say, ‘I don’t know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day, when there is evidence, we can find something out.'”

If “know” means “know with 100% certainty,” then this claim seems obviously wrong. I’ll never be able to know with 100% certainty whether any other human beings exist; what evidence could possibly make me 100% certain that a supernatural entity exists?

But maybe “know” in some of these definitions simply means “be able to assign some probability value whatsoever to the proposition that.” But since supernatural entities are potential objects of human experience, we should be able to assign some probability to their existence, even if we believe we have no experience of them whatsoever. We can at least venture a guess with a very wide confidence interval. Then as more evidence comes in, we can improve the quality of our guess. The strong version of this form of agnosticism doesn’t seem to make sense either, because it does not seem possible for anyone to know with 100% certainty that there will never be any evidence either for or against the existence of supernatural entities.

In the end, I don’t understand how agnosticism isn’t either obviously true and therefore uninteresting or almost incoherent. I should like to abolish the term from philosophy of religion altogether.

20 thoughts on “All Atheists Are Agnostics, and Most Theists Are Too, So the Term Is Almost Meaningless

  1. Atheists define themselves and most of them possess a virulent hostility to the idea that God exists.

    Agnostics aren’t sure whether God exists are not.

    Words mean things and we butcher the language when we redefine words to suit ourselves.

    1. OK, but no one’s 100% “sure” whether God exists or not. Honest atheists and theists will admit that (except for the hardcore fideists, those who believe faith is the only means to certain knowledge of objects of human experience).

      1. Jason,

        Human beings have the capacity to reason out the existence of God.

        It is through reason and systematic thinking that we know truth or false, for sure.

        Not having doubt, that it, being able to know, is essential to the pursuit of happiness.

      2. By reason do you mean induction or deduction? Deduction establishes necessary truths given the premises, but the premises themselves can’t be established beyond doubt. Induction can’t establish necessary truths.

  2. Clearly the author of this tragically confused write-up has been heavily influenced by mainstream philosophy, which is hardly rational enough to even begin approaching the subject of atheism. I won’t even get into the author’s acceptance of the false “logic vs. empiricism” dichotomy, because even with this faulty foundation a seven-year-old could still easily explain how the concept of god is logically inconceivable, regardless of empirical observation (I know this with certainty, since I was one such seven-year-old).

    As far as your extremely dubious claim of never having been aware of atheists who acknowledge that all gods are imaginary and DO NOT EXIST (which indeed is precisely what atheism is about), even though I haven’t personally found a list online (I’ve searched before, and it’s simply not been compiled, even on websites like http://www.positiveatheism.org or http://www.strongatheism.net – ugh I really should get a team of researchers on this project), surely you know of Friedrich Nietzsche? Ayn Rand and other Objectivists? Emma Goldman? I don’t know if Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins have identified precisely as such, but they and countless others have referred to the concept of gods quite specifically as imaginary, which precludes the logical possibility of their existence. The list could go on and on. Anyway, you’ve now come across me, and I am such an atheist, so you can no longer make that claim. My important point is that self-professed atheists who claim anything else are hardly proper atheists at all.

    I STRONGLY recommend my essay on this subject: https://tiffanysopinions.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/science-and-absolute-knowledge.

    Have a lovely day.

    1. If it’s so easy to show that the concept of God is meaningless, why don’t you do so in the course of your fairly lengthy comment? Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. maintain that God doesn’t exist, not that the concept of the divine is meaningless.

      1. I did not say that “the concept of god is meaningless” which of course would be a contradiction in terms – concepts are precisely an integration of meaning.

        Could you please actually read my statement before attempting to reply, thanks.

      2. If the concept of God isn’t meaningless, then it is logically possible that God exists, which means that p>0, however small.

  3. When you pick your own definitions it’s easy to make words mean what you want. Atheism is not believing that God probably does not exist. It is believing that God does not exist. Similarly a Theist believes in God. I have never seen “probably” any body else’s definition of those terms. That’s why the term agnostic exists.

    Your claim that no one knows that God exists may be “true” in some sort of scientific way, but that is not how belief works. The terms you are discussing are not terms of science but belief.

    1. OK – well, then, both theist & atheist sides are completely implausible. But the sophisticated philosophers of religion I’ve read on both sides are Bayesians: they attribute some probability to God’s existence. Dawkins is an example on the atheist side, while Swinburne is a Christian one.

  4. As a matter of the history of language-as-it’s-actually-used, I think atheists deny the existence of “the God of the Bible,” e.g., the one that is worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

    To generalize this a little bit, they do not believe in a personal God separate from the universe. They also deny that anything can live outside/above the laws of nature.

    Frankly, Prof. Sorens, I do not see what you find so difficult to understand about “igtheism.”

    1. You mean “ignosticism” as defined above? My problem w/ it is that the concept of a supernatural entity is not meaningless. Supernatural entities aren’t logically impossible; we know what the concept means. The only real question is whether such entities actually exist. So ignosticism is trained at a red herring: square-circle conceptions of God.

  5. Atheism is a belief. Atheists BELIEVE there is no God. There is no “probably” about it. Agnostics just throw up their hands. However, atheists also believe that theirs is the rational position – point out to an atheist that he is a “believer” no different from someone who believes there IS a God, and watch the fun.

    Since there is no way to prove either position, agnostics are the only rational participants in this argument. Or so I believe.

    1. Do agnostics truly claim that there is no probability that can be assigned to the proposition that supernatural entities exist? If so, that makes agnosticism rather narrow & implausible. For instance, what would an agnostic say about the historical claim that Jesus rose from the dead? Would they simply say that there is no possible way of assessing the truth of that statement? That would be odd. After all, we assign probabilities to other historical events. What’s the probability that there were two separate waves of human migration to the Americas? What’s the probability that some birds are descended from dinosaurs? Etc. Is it only statements about supernatural entities to which no probabilities can be attached? If so, why?

  6. If certain means “true in every imaginable context” than certain becomes a pretty useless word. If certain means “true given everything we know” than it’s easy to deny the existence of God with certainty.

    1. There’s colloquial “certain,” and there’s absolute or philosophical “certain.” In everyday speech, we use “certain” to describe extremely high probability judgments. Philosophically, though, I see no reason not to be Bayesian and assign 0<p<1 to any factual statement.

      1. Unless the rules of logic themselves and other things you think are certain are subject to “given the context we know,” in which case philosophically certain as you define it is meaningless.

      2. I suppose, by definition, that everything we know is subject to the context of what we know. But that fact doesn’t vitiate the distinction between “all possible worlds” certainty and “some possible worlds” uncertainty.

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