Some More Words on Agnostic Atheism

I was having a conversation with an atheist friend of mine and he suggested (actually, ‘suggested’ is much too weak a description of what he did) that my agnostic atheism is hopelessly confused.  He gave two  somewhat related reasons that struck me as being worth addressing.  The first is that, although he was willing to concede that atheism ought properly to be considered a belief claim, he nevertheless felt that one who believes that ‘there is no God’ necessarily cannot also believe that ‘whether or not there is a God is beyond our capacity to know’ – to do so is to somehow do something that is contradictory.  The second reason was that the agnosticism takes away reasons for adopting the atheism.

The first is actually not that difficult a matter to address.  Obviously, in one sense he was cutting himself off at the knees by granting that atheism ought to be considered a belief claim rather than a knowledge claim.  If the one claim is that ‘I know x‘ and the other is that ‘I cannot know x‘, there is an obvious contradiction there.  But there is nothing at all inherently contradictory if the first of the two statements were to be replaced with ‘I believe x‘.  For example, suppose I believed that I will be receiving a pink slip today (perhaps the company is in some tough times and layoffs have been announced).  This is in no way incompatible with my acknowledgement that I do not know whether or not I will actually receive a pink slip (maybe I sit somewhere in the middle of the seniority ladder and the management hasn’t announced how many they will be laying off).  The same applies to agnostic atheism.

The second criticism is perhaps more damning.  To take a stance on the question (whether that be some species of theism or atheism) is to make quite a strong commitment, even if that stance is ‘merely’ a matter of belief rather than knowledge.  Given that this is so, wouldn’t it just be best to acknowledge that one cannot know and leave it at that?  While it would certainly be a ‘safer’ position, I don’t think that it is a better one.  While the epistemic requirements for knowledge (especially of this kind) are rather high (I am here assuming some JTB+), there are certainly reasons for deciding more or less tentatively in favour of one proposition over another.  For example, I believe (rather strongly) that my house keys are where I left them when I got home yesterday.  Of course, I do not ‘know’ this – perhaps my wife, for what would clearly be a good reason, had occasion to move them – but, nevertheless, I have some pretty good reasons for thinking so.  The same can hold for theism or atheism.  For example, I see Darwinian natural selection as an adequate explanation of apparent design, which makes a designer superfluous to the whole process, while a theist might point to what he sees as the unintelligibility of morality without a lawgiver as evidence in favour of God.

Of course, the coherence of my position really does depend on whether theism/atheism really are belief – but not knowledge – claims.  I think so, but that is a matter for another day.

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Some Questions for Atheists, Agnostics, Seculars, Theists and Deists

I am very curious about people’s suppositions about God(s), especially of those who reject the notion.  What sort of god or gods would you find acceptable/tolerable?  What sort of evidence would you consider valid evidence for the existence of this god-concept?  (Remember, this absolutely need not be an ‘off the rack’ model – I want to know whatever you think.)  Similarly, theists and deists, what sort of god concept do you think is the case and what would count as evidence against that god-concept?

In in the interest of disclosure, I’m an atheist, but there are days when I lean panendeist.  What would count as evidence against this account?  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure, but there are two probable answers.  One, incontrovertible evidence of a miracle.  Two, an account of the mind that convincingly eliminates all that functionally unspecifiable stuff (like qualia) and which gives a half-way decent account of intentionality.

Contrary to Agressive Atheists and Their Theistic Counterparts,…

can be both an atheist and an agnostic.  It has been claimed by at least one theist of whom I am aware that he appreciates atheists because they at least have strength of their convictions, whereas he finds agnostics to be too wishy-washy.  Of course, a sentiment such as this makes perfect sense coming from a man of faith – he recognizes and admires firm belief in the face of doubt, even if that belief directly contradicts his own.  [1]  And I am personally acquainted with many atheists who would agree with this pastor that agnosticism is an unacceptable form of cowardice because it is obviously the case that there is no God. 

But I must demur.  I think both of these positions can be taken up by the same person, because they have different domains – atheism is a doxastic (i.e. belief related) position, while agnosticism is an epistemic (i.e. knowledge related) matter.  It is true that I do not believe that Christianity is true (or, more strongly, I believe that it is false), and I believe that I have good reasons for saying so.  But I also think that I do not and cannot know that there is nothing at all that exists which is invisible to us and which might well be something that is deserving of the appellation of ‘God’ or ‘The Absolute’ or somesuch.  [2]  So I don’t see these positions as incompatible.

Endnotes:

[1] This reminds me of an old story about my great-grandfather that has been passed down in family lore.  He (British) fought in the trenches in WWI and had the following to say about Frenchmen and Germans.  Paraphrased: “give me a German over a Frenchman any day: at least you know the German’s not going to run.”

[2] Granted, the falsity of Christianity is something that can be more definitively assigned to the realm of knowledge because it posits miracles and interventions by God in the natural world – for example, I am fairly certain that I know that there has never been a virgin birth.  Other positions are firmly out of the realm of knowledge, however.  For instance, deism is precisely the sort of position that I literally cannot make any knowledge claims about.