The Motives for Lack-of-Belief Atheism

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Presents…

The Motives for Lack-of-Belief Atheism

Over the course of a number of previous essays, it has been pointed out that it is reasonable to believe that one of the primary motivators that leads certain unbelievers to embrace the concept of lack-of-belief atheism is that it gives a veneer to legitimacy to unbelievers who are essentially atheistic-naturalists (philosophical-naturalists) to nevertheless claim that they have no burden of proof for their position, and so such unbelievers embrace lack-of-belief atheism as a means of avoiding the burden of proof for their positive views. Indeed, such unbelievers, even though they really do not lack-a-belief in the literal sense and actually possess numerous positive burden-bearing beliefs about the God question, nevertheless want to exploit the burden-avoiding property of agnosticism and so they are motivated to disingenuously claim that their positive unbelief is nothing more than a mere lack-of-belief. And again, to see that this is the case, the words of atheist Luke Muehlhauser, the author of the website ‘commonsenseatheism.com’, can be noted. In his 23rd of February 2009 article titled “Atheism and the Burden of Proof”, which was accessed on the 8th of August 2016, Muehlhauser stated the following:

[QUOTE] But most intellectually-inclined atheists I know do not merely “lack” a belief in God – as, say, my dog lacks a belief in God. Atheists like to avoid the burden of proof during debates, so they say they merely “lack” a belief in God. But this is not what their writings usually suggest. No, most intellectual atheists positively believe that God does not exist. In fact, most of them will say – at least to other atheists – that it’s “obvious” there is no God, or that they “know” – as well as we can “know” anything – that God does not exist. Thus, if the atheist wants to defend what he really believes, then he, too, has a burden of proof. He should give reasons for why he thinks that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=597%5D

And so, in light of Muehlhauser’s quote, and in light of other evidence that has been presented in this series, it can indeed be reasonably believed that many atheistic-naturalists conceal their true burden-bearing beliefs behind the claim that they merely “lack-a-belief” in God. Thus, such unbelievers are bullshitters—in the philosophical sense—given that their primary goal is not to describe the true state of their unbelieving point-of-view, but rather their goal is to simply say anything which augments the rhetorical strength of their position, which avoiding the burden of proof does do.

But while avoiding the burden of proof serves as a strong motive for atheistic-naturalists to embrace lack-of-belief atheism, this group is only one sub-set of the individuals who embrace this negative position. Indeed, for while atheistic-naturalists have positive beliefs concerning the non-existence of God, and are motived to embrace lack-of-belief atheism as a means of skirting the burden of proof, there are also unbelievers who are essentially straight agnostics about the issue of God’s existence—meaning that they neither positively believe nor disbelieve in God’s existence—who nevertheless also embrace the ‘lack-of-belief atheist’ label rather than calling themselves agnostics. Indeed, such individuals now often identity themselves as merely ‘atheists’ rather than as agnostics who are uncertain or unsure about whether or not God exists. And while avoiding the burden of proof is a clear and strong motive for atheistic-naturalists to disingenuously claim that they merely lack a belief in God, the question remains as to whether there is also a strong motive which could be driving agnostics to call themselves ‘atheists’? In essence, is there a reason why a person, in today’s day and age, might prefer to use the term ‘atheist’ rather than ‘agnostic’, even if, intellectually, such a person is more in line with the latter position than the former one? Indeed there is, but to understand this motive, a few quotes need to be considered.

First, consider relatively popular atheist Jason Rosenhouse and his ‘Evolution Blog’, which is located in the main ‘Science Blogs’ forum. In a post titled “Agnosticism Is For Wimps”, which was written on the 23rd of January 2013 and accessed on the 26th of January 2017, Rosenhouse writes the following:

[QUOTE] Remember that scene in A Fish Called Wanda, where Kevin Kline, talking to a British woman who has cornered him in rhetorical combat, says, with maximal sarcasm, “Oh, you British are soooooo superior.”

That’s pretty much how I feel when I read essays written by agnostics. By all means make whatever arguments it amuses you to make for not taking a stand on the God question. But please stop acting like you’re soooooo superior. You’re not the sensible middle ground between two extremes, and you’re not the clear-thinking pluralist calmly sifting the evidence. You’re just a wimp.

The title of this post is meant tongue in cheek, but only slightly. I really don’t think agnosticism has much going for it as a philosophical position, and in practice it often functions as a way for pedants to act superior. Of course, in most cases agnostics are functionally indistinguishable from atheists, and so I feel I have a lot in common with them. The fact remains, though, that at the level of abstract argument I think even theism has more going for it than agnosticism.  [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2013/01/23/agnosticism-is-for-wimps/%5D

So Rosenhouse thinks, at least somewhat, that agnosticism is for wimps; in fact, he even thinks theism has more going for it than agnosticism does, which is shocking given that Rosenhouse does not think that theism has much going for it. And yet note that Rosenhouse is not alone in thinking that agnosticism is for wimps.

Next, consider atheist and professor of biochemistry Larry Moran, who, on his blog ‘Sandwalk’, in a 14th of November 2006 post which was titled “Agnostics Are Wimps”, and which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017, wrote the following:

[QUOTE] Jason Rosenhouse over at EVOLUTION BLOG has challenged John Wilkins’ position on agnosticism in Wilkins on Dawkins.

They are both discussing an issue raised by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. In his section on “The Poverty of Agnosticism” (pp. 46-54), Dawkins describes agnostics as fence-sitters, and this was not meant as a compliment.

John, with all due respect, if you walk like an atheist and talk like an atheist then, to all intents and purposes, you’re a practicing atheist, whether you want to admit it or not.

We spent a whole Sunday together and I know you didn’t go to church. You are not a theist. The word that describes that non-believer lifestyle is “atheist,” not “agnostic.” Please join Jason Rosenhouse, Richard Dawkins, and me, and come all the way out of the closet. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://sandwalk.blogspot.co.uk/2006/11/agnostics-are-whimps.html%5D

Now, notice two critical things with Moran’s statement. First, he too thinks agnosticism is for wimps, as both the title of his post states and as he implies by suggesting that agnostics are just closeted atheists who are too afraid to fully out themselves. Second, Moran interprets that Richard Dawkins’s comment about agnostics being fence-sitters is also meant to be taken negatively, as if there is something cowardly or weak with such fence-sitting.

And also consider popular atheist and evolutionist Jerry Coyne. On his blog ‘Why Evolution is True’, in a 25th of October 2013 post titled “Bertrand Russell on why the term ‘agnostic’ is for show”—which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017—Coyne writes:

[QUOTE] …yes, you cannot give a logical demonstration that the Greek gods don’t exist. (That’s the “you can’t prove a negative” line.)  But you can give a practical demonstration that their existence is improbable, for if they interact with the world you should find some evidence of that interaction; and you find none.

…if you have no belief in gods, you should call yourself an “atheist.”  The term “agnostic” is for wimps. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/bertrand-russell-on-why-the-term-agnostic-is-for-show/%5D

So, what do all these quotes show? Well, they show that some prominent and popular unbelievers view agnosticism as a position for wimps and cowards. And could this fact serve as a motive for people to avoid being branded as an agnostic? Absolutely, for given that most people naturally wish to avoid being labeled as a weakling or a coward, then evading such a fate would be a strong motivator for many people, thereby driving them to drop the ‘agnostic’ label in favor of the ‘atheist’ one.

But also note that while the three quotes above come from modern professors and academics, the attitude that agnosticism is for wimps is not restricted to those in the ivory tower. For example, in a 30th of July 2010 blog post titled “Why is agnosticism cowardly atheism?”—which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017—an internet personality named ‘tildeb’ (whom I have interacted with before), writes the following on his blog ‘Questionable Motives’:

[QUOTE] Ron Rosenbaum tells us in this Slate article why his infantile Templeton-funded “radical skepticism” kind of agnosticism is so new and improved. It is neither. It is an intellectual embarrassment.

New Agnosticism (versus New Atheism, of course) as a practical matter is nothing more and nothing less than cowardly atheism but with a healthy dose of accomodationism [sic] built right in. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://questionablemotives.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/why-is-agnosticism-cowardly-atheism/%5D

And in the comments to that blog post, tildeb further argues that the type of agnosticism that Dawkins describes as fence-sitting is indeed intellectual cowardice.

But again, tildeb is still not alone. Consider, for example, that a British TV comedian named Steve Coogan says that he is an atheist because agnosticism is for cowards (see a 26th of October 2013 article in ‘The Guardian’ titled “Steve Coogan: knowing me? No way”, which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017 (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/oct/26/steve-coogan-philomena-interview)). And magician Penn Jillette, in the 2012 paperback edition of his Simon-and-Schuster published book God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, in the Section titled “Agnostics: No One Can Know for Sure but I Believe They’re Full of Shit”, calls agnosticism a view for “fucking puss[ies]” and states that most agnostics are “…really just cowardly and manipulative atheists”.

Furthermore, even agnostics themselves point out that they are often viewed as intellectual cowards. For instance, in a 19th of December 2003 interview with PBS, which was published in written form in an article titled “Interview: Studs Terkel” on the PBS website—which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017—agnostic Studs Terkel made the following comment: “You happen to be talking to an agnostic. You know what an agnostic is? A cowardly atheist. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics /2003/12/19/december-19-2003-interview-studs-terkel/11022/)

So the point here is that the idea that agnosticism is a cowardly position is one which is wide-spread and has permeated numerous different levels of society. And what this, in turn, means, is that the concept of ‘a cowardly agnostic’ is not merely being advanced by those individuals in ivory towers but is also pushed by the common-man. In fact, it is even interesting to note that as of 9:11 am on the 25th of January 2017, the four Google search-box autocompletes for the phrase “Agnostics are…” were the following:  1) “agnostics are atheist”; 2) “agnostics are atheist without balls”; 3) “agnostics are cowards”; and 4) “agnostics are stupid”. And this search was done on a computer account that had never searched for the phrase “Agnostics are…” before, nor was the computer logged-in to a Google account, which means that the autocompletions mentioned above were based, at least in large part, on what other people have searched for in the past, thereby providing some further evidence that the idea that agnostics are cowards is not an obscure belief.

And lest it be thought that calling an agnostic a ‘cowardly atheist’ is a recent phenomenon, it should be noted that even back when the term ‘agnostic’ was first coined, certain atheists were accusing agnostics of being weak and cowardly. For example, in atheist-turned-deist Antony Flew’s 26th of July 1999 Encyclopedia Britannica article on “Agnosticism”, which was accessed on the 26th of January 2017, Flew notes that atheist Frederick Engels, of communist infamy, wrote that T.H. Huxley, the father of the term ‘agnosticism’, was just a “shame-faced atheist.” Indeed, Flew writes the following:

[QUOTE] Agnosticism in its primary reference is commonly contrasted with atheism thus: “The Atheist asserts that there is no God, whereas the Agnostic maintains only that he does not know.” This distinction, however, is in two respects misleading: first, Huxley himself certainly rejected as outright false—rather than as not known to be true or false—many widely popular views about God, his providence, and man’s posthumous destiny; and second, if this were the crucial distinction, agnosticism would for almost all practical purposes be the same as atheism. It was indeed on this misunderstanding that Huxley and his associates were attacked both by enthusiastic Christian polemicists and by Friedrich Engels, the co-worker of Karl Marx, as “shame-faced atheists,” a description that is perfectly applicable to many of those who nowadays adopt the more comfortable label. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://www.britannica.com/topic/agnosticism%5D

Now the late Antony Flew had his own definition of agnosticism, and it is Flew’s very definition that has caused a great deal of the conflation that occurs today between agnosticism and atheism, but regardless of this point, Flew’s above statement is interesting for two reasons. First is the obvious point that Flew shows us that the idea that agnostics are considered less-than-brave atheists is one which has existed for generations. But second, note that even Flew states that the description of agnostics as “shame-faced atheists” is a description that is applicable to many people today who adopt the more comfortable and easy label of agnosticism. So even Flew, who was still an atheist at the time that he wrote this article—and who was arguably the most intellectual atheist of the past century—tacitly implies that many modern agnostics are merely cowardly atheists.

Thus, what all these quotes show is that the idea that agnosticism is just a cowardly form of atheism is a well-known belief across a wide spectrum of the unbelieving community. And yet since, as stated earlier, it is reasonable to believe that few people would wish to be known as shame-faced-in-the-closet cowards, then the fact that this is precisely how many people view agnostics would thus be a powerful motive for a person not to label himself an agnostic. Indeed, faced with the prospective of labeling oneself an agnostic and being seen by many people as a wimp or of calling oneself an atheist and being seen as brave and bold, it is quite reasonable to hold that many unbelievers, being human beings subject to the same psychological pressures and drives as the rest of humanity, would choose the latter option rather than the former one. And yet, this very fact thus provides us with a reasonable motive for why more agnostic-oriented unbelievers would choose to label themselves as atheists rather than agnostics. But at the same time, since the very same unbelievers who want to be known as atheists rather than agnostics also realize that they want the burden-avoiding argumentative benefits that agnosticism provides, then this also creates a powerful incentive to create a form of atheism, namely lack-of-belief atheism, which is agnostic-like in its content but atheist-like in terms of rhetoric.

And so, the long and short of it is this:  when it comes to negative lack-of-belief atheism, there are two motives which it is reasonable to believe drive the embrace of negative-atheism. First, for the unbeliever who is more of an atheistic-naturalist, the motive for embracing so-called lack-of-belief atheism is the desire to avoid having to bear any burden of proof for his unbelief as well as the desire to appear legitimate when doing so. Second, for the unbeliever who is more of an agnostic, the motive for embracing lack-of-belief atheism is the desire not to be labeled a ‘coward’ by other members of the unbelieving community, while still nevertheless maintaining an agnostic-like position. And so, from both ends of the unbelieving spectrum, it is possible to see that there is indeed a strong psychological incentive to embrace a position which is rhetorically ‘atheist’ but essentially ‘agnostic’, and this is precisely what we see with so-called lack-of-belief atheism. And this is, at least in part, why both outright atheists and actual agnostics embrace the label of ‘lack-of-belief atheism’ even though neither of them really lack a belief about the God-question in any literal or relevant sense.

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Anno Domini 2017 01 29

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2 thoughts on “The Motives for Lack-of-Belief Atheism

  1. One either believes in gods or a god or one does not. One is either a theist or an atheist. In this regard, people who take what they presume is a legitimate middle position between belief and non belief are not being honest and this is the source of criticism against those fence sitters who call themselves ‘agnostics’ relative to their belief or non belief in gods or a god. They are either confused or dishonest because there is no more a middle position than there is about, say, believing in gravity. So when one acts all day everyday presuming gravity is either true or false and then tries to avoid responsibility for that belief by pretending there is a middle ground they occupy, then one can quickly see why such dishonest prevaricators are held in contempt.This is the case regarding agnostics when it comes to belief in gods or a god. Either a theist or an atheist. It’s a reference to their state of belief or lack thereof.

    Now, people offer reasons for either. This is where knowledge enters the picture. This is a different question… is there knowledge available to support a belief or non belief position? And this where agnosticism comes into play. Richard Dawkins himself identifies as an agnostic atheist. How can this be if, according to you, these are terms along a single belief spectrum (remember, you can’t be in two places at once, after all)?

    This can be the case because gnosticism refers to a state of knowledge while theism refers to a state of belief. These are not synonyms but very different terms of references. You have not understood this difference.

    The same is true for the antitheses of what these terms mean:: agnosticism refers to a lack of knowledge and atheism to a lack of belief. It’s really important to understand that these are two different references, that using one term about, say, belief is a reference to a state of belief or non belief and not a knowledge claim as you try to portray it. You continually cross this border in your post and inappropriately talk about belief using the term agnosticism. Similarly, you inappropriately use the term atheism when talking about the reasons – the knowledge basis – for certain claims.

    You are confused and are trying to impose on a lack of belief a set of knowledge claims in order to pretend this knowledge empty term – atheism – is a positive knowledge claim in need of burden of proof. You are incorrect.

    This is why you start hyphenating terms in your approach to import meaning to these terms that favours your conclusion. This is dishonest of you and reminds me of the same tactic used by many agnostics to pretend there is a basis to differentiate their non belief from the non belief of atheists. And this is why such apologetic tactics used to support unsupportable positions like non belief requires a burden of proof are held in the same contempt: it’s dishonest because the approach lacks intellectual integrity.

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  2. In reference to this topic on lack-of-belief atheism, tildeb brings up the other atheist talking-point that atheists use to claim that lack-of-belief atheism is legitimate: namely, that agnosticism is about knowledge whereas atheism is about belief. Now, in a previous essay, another commentator brought this up, and I told him that I was well-aware of this objection and had points against it. Well, in light of tildeb’s comment, here is that essay.

    HOWEVER, AS A DISCLAIMER, THIS IS A DRAFT ESSAY WHICH I WAS NOT PLANNING TO PUBLISH FOR A FEW WEEKS / MONTHS. AS SUCH, IT IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE AND WILL MOST LIKELY HAVE SPELLING ERRORS IN IT. NEVERTHELESS, HERE IT IS:

    Objection 2: Agnosticism as Knowledge, Not Belief

    The second major objection to the issue that any type of atheism which is defined as just a lack of belief is either better described as something like ignotheism for those who are genuinely ignorant of the question of God’s existence or else it is just agnosticism by another name, is that atheism is a position that deals with belief whereas agnosticism is a position that deals with knowledge.

    Indeed, some atheists assert that the difference between atheism and agnosticism is that atheism allegedly deals with belief claims whereas agnosticism deals strictly with knowledge claims, thereby implying that a person could be an atheist and an agnostic at the same time without a contradiction necessarily arising. Such critics argue that rather than seeing agnosticism as resting at the mid-point between atheism and theism on the spectrum of theistic belief, agnosticism is actually best understood as resting in a separate category altogether, thus meaning that it does not overlap with atheism. Consider, for example, what Austin Cline, an ‘Agnosticism & Atheism Expert’ at the popular website ‘atheism.about.com’, says in his online article “Atheist vs. Agnostic – What’s the Difference?”, which was accessed on the 8th of September 2016. Cline says the following:

    An atheist is anyone who doesn’t happen to believe in any gods, no matter what their reasons or how they approach the question of whether any gods exist. This is a very simple concept, but it’s also widely misunderstood. For that reason, there are a variety of ways to state this. Atheism is: the lack of belief in gods, the absence of belief in gods, disbelief in gods, not believing in gods.

    An agnostic is anyone who doesn’t claim to know for that any gods exist or not, no matter what their reasons or how they approach the question of whether any gods exist.

    There’s a simple test to tell if one is an agnostic or not. Do you think you know for sure if any gods exist? If so, then you’re not an agnostic. Do you think you know for sure that gods do not or even cannot exist? If so, then you’re not an agnostic. Everyone who can’t answer “yes” to one of those questions is a person who may or may not believe in one or more gods, but since they don’t also claim to know for sure they are agnostic — an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist.

    …many people have the mistaken impression that agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive. But why? There’s nothing about “I don’t know” which excludes “I don’t believe.” On the contrary, not only are they compatible but they frequently appear together because not knowing is frequently a reason for not believing. It’s often a very good idea to not accept some proposition is true unless you have enough evidence that would qualify as knowledge.

    And so this whole objection stems from the fact that the word ‘gnostic’ pertains to the issue of knowledge and of having knowledge, and so an a-gnostic is thus be someone who lacks knowledge about something.

    Now, as Cline noted, what this objections aims to assert in terms of the categorization of different people is that a person could thus be 1) a gnostic-atheist, meaning that he is a person who both knows that God does not exist and who also believes that God does not exist, or a person could be 2) an agnostic-atheist, meaning that he is a person who does not know that God does not exist, but he does indeed believe that God does not exist. So the difference is allegedly between belief and knowledge, and so every atheist is apparently either a gnostic-atheist or an agnostic one precisely because a person could believe that God does not exist while not necessarily claiming to know whether he exists or not. Thus, given this objection, agnosticism is not understood to be the middle position between atheism and theism on the spectrum of belief, but rather it is something that is tacked on to either atheistic or theistic belief.

    Countering the Objection

    There are a number of responses that can be made to counter this objection.

    Response One

    First, it can be plainly stated that the aforementioned division between atheism and agnosticism is, at the very least, highly debatable; indeed, numerous definitional examples can be provided which articulate agnosticism’s commonly understood connection with belief as well as its placement in the neutral middle-ground between atheism and theism along the spectrum of theistic belief, which thereby implies its conflation with negative lack-of-belief atheism.

    Consider, once again, Robert M. Martin’s definition of atheism, theism, and agnosticism in his 2002 3rd Edition of The Philosopher’s Dictionary:

    Atheists believe that God doesn’t exist. … Atheism is contrasted with its opposite, theism, the view that God does exist, and also with agnosticism, the view that there isn’t any good reason to believe either that God exists or that He doesn’t.

    Next, Matt McCormick’s online article “Atheism” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, also accessed on the 25th of November 2015, provides this definition of atheism and agnosticism:

    Atheism is the view that there is no God … It has come to be widely accepted that to be an atheist is to affirm the non-existence of God. Anthony Flew (1984) called this positive atheism, whereas to lack a belief that God or gods exist is to be a negative atheist… Agnosticism is traditionally characterized as neither believing that God exists nor believing that God does not exist. (http://www.iep.utm.edu/atheism/)

    And atheist Michael Martin, in the “General Introduction” to the 2006 Cambridge Companion to Atheism, although claiming that the idea of negative atheism is legitimate—an idea addressed in the essay “Atheism Ain’t No Lack of Belief”—nevertheless asserts that agnosticism concerns belief. Here is Martin:

    Agnosticism, the position of neither believing nor disbelieving that God exists, is often contrasted with atheism. However, this common opposition of agnosticism to atheism is misleading. Agnosticism and positive atheism are indeed incompatible: if atheism is true, agnosticism is false and conversely. But agnosticism is compatible with negative atheism in that agnosticism entails negative atheism. Since agnostics do not believe in God, they are by definition negative atheists. This is not to say that negative atheism entails agnosticism. A negative atheist might disbelieve in God but need not.

    Furthermore, although he speaks of agnosticism in general, author JJC Smart, in his 8th of August 2011 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Atheism & Agnosticism”—which was accessed on the 11th of September 2016—notes the following: “‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it.” (LINK).

    And in his famous book The God Delusion, and specifically in the section titled “The Poverty of Agnosticism”, arch-atheist Richard Dawkins described a spectrum of theistic belief, when pure agnosticism directly in the middle of that spectrum, and with strong atheism and theism on either end of the spectrum. Indeed, Richard Dawkins’s spectrum of theistic belief, which is based on the strength of a person’s claim of his belief, lists the following levels of possible theistic belief: strong theist, de facto theist, agnostic-leaning-towards-theism, completely impartial agnostic, agnostic-leaning-towards-atheism, de facto atheist, strong atheist.

    Next, consider that numerous dictionaries also link agnosticism to belief. For example, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, accessed on the 4th of August 2016, has a simple definition of an agnostic as being “a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not”; it also has a full definition which states that an agnostic is “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.” Furthermore, this same dictionary also provides its general and non-theistic definition of an agnostic as being “a person who does not believe or is unsure of something.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agnostic) And Dictionary.com, accessed on the same date, provides one of its definitions of an agnostic as being “a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic.” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/agnostic)

    And so, in light of all these definitions, the idea that atheism is about belief while agnosticism is strictly about knowledge is readily disputable, as is the idea that agnosticism is somehow detached from the spectrum of theistic belief. But the issue may even worse for the proponents of the idea that atheism and agnosticism are in separate domains, for the simple fact that if some of the best sources that we have argue against the idea that agnosticism has nothing to do with belief, and that agnosticism is the position of neither accepting nor positively disbelieving in a certain idea, then perhaps the best course of action, at this point, would be to be agnostic and doubtful about the idea that we should treat agnosticism as being solely about knowledge whereas atheism is solely about belief. So even just at this stage, we should be rather skeptical of the idea that agnosticism has nothing to do with belief.

    Response Two

    The second answer to the idea that atheism and agnosticism deal with the separate dimensions of belief and knowledge respectively is an even more important one, for note that while accurately defining the term ‘knowledge’ is a thorny philosophical issue, in daily life we often construe knowledge as being a belief which is strongly justified with evidence and argumentation, and which we thus hold with a firm conviction—at least for non-basic beliefs. So, for example, most people would hold that a belief which is beyond a reasonable doubt, either based on evidence or other reasons, would count as knowledge. Indeed, if, for example, an individual is found guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, then people, in such a case, rightly claim to know that this criminal is a murderer. They do not just believe it to be the case, but they know it to be the case precisely because it is a belief which is beyond a reasonable doubt. So, in common-sense language, one can claim to know something, based on good reasons, which is then overturned—just as we can rationally claim to know that a criminal is a murderer only to admit that we were mistaken based on new evidence.

    But now, if we can thus claim to know something if we believe it based on strong evidences and arguments, or for other rational reasons, and if knowledge is therefore understood as a well-justified belief, then knowledge is best understood as being one position of the spectrum of belief: namely, a strong and firm belief that merits the label of knowledge. This is why, for example, in the legal setting—and the legal field is an excellent domain to use given that it is where philosophical musings meet reality—there are different gradations of beliefs: a belief based on a reasonable suspicion; a belief based on reasonable grounds; a belief which is more probable than not; a belief based on clear and convincing evidence; and a belief which is beyond a reasonable doubt, which we would commonsensically call knowledge. Now, if we have these gradations of belief, with at least one of them counting as knowledge, then what this means is that knowledge is about belief, albeit about a specific type of belief. Thus, agnosticism, even if it is about knowledge, is thus still about belief, albeit about a belief that is very strong and well-justified. And note that even Cline tacitly admits this point when he says the following, which is taken directly from the quote above:

    There’s a simple test to tell if one is an agnostic or not. Do you think you know for sure if any gods exist? If so, then you’re not an agnostic. Do you think you know for sure that gods do not or even cannot exist? If so, then you’re not an agnostic. Everyone who can’t answer “yes” to one of those questions is a person who may or may not believe in one or more gods, but since they don’t also claim to know for sure they are agnostic — an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist.

    Notice that when Cline states that a gnostic is a person who thinks he knows for sure if a God exists (or not), Cline is essentially admitted that his version of knowledge is just a belief by another name. Indeed, for his use of the words ‘think’ and ‘for sure’ gives his strategy away. After all, a person who thinks he knows something is a person who believes or claims something. And the use of the words ‘for sure’ shows that Cline is talking about the confidence level and strength of the person’s belief. Thus, in saying that a gnostic-atheist is someone who thinks he know for sure that God does not exist, Cline is simply saying that a gnostic-atheism is someone who believes and/or claims, with a great deal of certainty and conviction, that God does not exist. But if this is the case, then even Cline himself is tacitly admitting that agnosticism is not about knowledge as some separate category from belief, but it is rather precisely about belief, just a very strongly held one (and one which is well-justified). Thus, gnostic-atheism is little more than an atheistic-belief which is held with near certainty and/or based on good rational grounds; so agnostic-atheism is, in other words, something like strong atheism or certain atheism, for all of these are about thinking, for sure, that atheism is correct.

    And lest anyone question this interpretation of Cline, note that it is reinforced when Cline, again from the quote above, says this:

    …many people have the mistaken impression that agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive. But why? There’s nothing about “I don’t know” which excludes “I don’t believe.” On the contrary, not only are they compatible but they frequently appear together because not knowing is frequently a reason for not believing. It’s often a very good idea to not accept some proposition is true unless you have enough evidence that would qualify as knowledge.

    When Cline implies that knowledge is the acceptance of a proposition as true only if that proposition has enough evidence for it that it would qualify as knowledge, Cline is conceding that the commonsensical view of knowledge as a belief which is based on clear and convincing evidence or is beyond a reasonable doubt is the correct view. But this, once again, shows that Cline tacitly accepts that knowledge is just a species of belief, not a separate category from it. And so Cline’s words essentially contradict themselves, for by Cline’s own criteria, the difference between agnosticism and atheism is not the difference between “I don’t know” and “I don’t believe”, but rather, it is the difference between “I don’t have a strong and well-justified belief” versus “I don’t have a mere belief”. Thus, once again, we can see that even on Cline’s view, the key issue surrounding knowledge is with the strength and justification of the belief, and so the ‘agnostic’ or ‘gnostic’ prefix before the term atheism or theism is not something which is separate from belief, but they are just a different way of stating the strength and certainty that one has in one’s belief about a certain topic. Thus, they are just a way of noting the degree of belief that a person could have about their atheism. And in this sense, they are terms which are thus no different than the legal terms—such as a belief held on reasonable grounds or a belief held on clear and convincing evidence—noted earlier which also serve to differentiate on what evidentiary basis, and thus how strongly, a person holds to a certain belief.

    Finally, it is also important to point out that it is arguably impossible for knowledge, in this context, to be anything but a strong and well-justified belief. After all, if we take knowledge in the philosophical sense as a justified true belief or a warranted true belief, it seems hard to see how the atheist could claim to know that atheism is the case given that the truth of atheism is not only in question but is also highly debatable in the normal sense of the term. And this is not even considering the havoc that true skepticism can cause to knowledge claims. So the point here is not that we cannot rationally claim to know things, but rather that when we do claim to know things, it is in the sense of having a belief which is based on clear and convincing evidence or is beyond a reasonable doubt. It is, in essence, a well justified and certain belief. And that is all that it can be in our day-to-day setting. But this then reinforces the fact that agnosticism and Gnosticism cannot be understood as some separate category from belief, but rather they are just ways of describing the strength of our belief. Thus the agnostic-atheist is, in other words, just a weak or tentative atheist who believes his atheism on, say, reasonable grounds, but not much more than that. And the gnostic-atheist is, in other words, just a strong or certain atheist who believes his atheism on clear and convincing evidence. And thus the agnostic-atheist and the gnostic-atheist still fall on the spectrum of theistic belief, but just at different locations due to the strength of their belief.

    So now, given all this, and given Cline’s admittance that knowledge is just a strong and well-justified belief, note that instead of using such terms as gnostic-atheism or agnosticism-atheism to describe different gradations of belief, it would be more natural and even more understandable to speak of, say, weak or tentative-atheism, rather than agnostic-atheism, or to speak of strong-atheism or certain-atheism, rather than speaking of gnostic-atheism. Indeed, the common-man would quite readily understand what is meant by tentative-atheism or certain-atheism, but it is highly doubtful that he would understand what is meant by gnostic-atheism or agnostic-atheism without detailed explanation. And if the terms tentative-atheism or certain-atheism were deemed insufficient, we could then simply use the same legal terms as described above for further clarity; thus, we could have an atheist who believes atheism to be true beyond a reasonable doubt or an atheist who simply believes that atheism is a reasonable position to hold at present, even if other positions are also reasonable and even if that person’s atheism may be subject to quick revision in light of new evidence. And again, such a method for describing the level of belief that a person has in their atheism would be much clearer and more naturally understandable than terms such as gnostic-atheism or agnostic-atheism.

    Additionally, it should be noted that there is a further problem for the term agnostic-atheism: namely, that since an agnostic-atheist is an individual who believes that God does not exist but does not claim to know that God does not exist, and yet since that individual’s belief in God’s non-existence may be of various strengths, then some additional scale will need to be added to the term agnostic-atheist anyway in order to properly explain the level of belief that the person in question has. For example, a person could believe in atheism on the basis of weak and tentative evidence, and thus hold to his atheism tentatively, and so such a person would be a tentative-agnostic-atheist. Or, by contrast, an individual might believe on the basis of clear and convincing evidence which gives the person a firm belief concerning atheism, but not quite knowledge concerning it, and so such a person would need to be described as something like a firm or strong agnostic-atheist. So the point here is to demonstrate that the term agnostic-atheist cannot state alone given that it does not actually explain the degree of belief with which the so-called agnostic-atheist holds to his atheism, and therefore this term would itself require the addition of a scale of belief—like the one offered earlier—in order to make the term clear, accurate, and actually useful as a descriptor of various atheistic positions. So even the proponent of agnostic-atheism cannot escape the need for some more detailed type of scale in order to accurately describe the various levels of atheistic belief which a person could have.

    So, in light of all these points, since describing atheists (or theists) with a commonly understood descriptor for their degree of belief is more appropriate and more commonsensical than using the terms agnostic or gnostic atheist, and since doing this thus frees up agnosticism to move into the spot between atheism and theism on the spectrum of theistic belief—a spot which must be filled, and which, as the definitions in point one have shown, agnosticism is often taken as filling—then dropping the terms agnostic-atheist and gnostic-atheist and replacing them with better terms is an entirely rational position to take. And for this reason, it is the preferable view. And this will be especially the case when we review the third reason that exists to reject the idea that agnosticism is solely about knowledge rather than about belief. But what this means for the view that atheism should be defined as a lack of belief is that this is not the best way to define atheism; rather, it is agnosticism which is the position that neither affirms nor positively denies the claim that God exists, and thus it is atheism which is always best understood as a positive position, of greater or lesser degree, which claims that God does not exist.

    Response Three

    The third issue concerns clarity, or rather the lack thereof concerning the terms agnostic-atheism and gnostic-atheism. For example, and just from a personal perspective, the moment that I heard the term agnostic-atheist, I did not think of a person who only believed that God did not exist but did not claim to know that God did not exist, but rather, I thought of a person who was agnostic about the existence of some gods but was also atheistic about the existence of other gods. By contrast, the term tentative-atheist is much clear than agnostic-atheist; furthermore, the former term is much more understandable than the latter one, especially for the common man. And the same could be said for the term gnostic-atheist in comparison to certain-atheist.

    Response Four

    The final reason which reinforces the claim that agnosticism is most appropriately understood as being situated in the neutral mid-point between atheism and theism, and thus being the true lack-of-belief position, is the following: if, as the objectors claim, atheism is about belief and agnosticism is strictly about knowledge, and if a person could thus technically be an agnostic-atheist or a gnostic-atheist, then what should a person who 1) does not know whether or not God exists, and 2) who also does not believe or disbelieve that God exists, and is doubtful about the matter, be called? Well, given the earlier definitions of agnosticism, which clearly articulate that an agnostic is someone who is doubtful or uncertain about either side of an issue, it would thus be the case that such a person should be called an agnostic-agnostic. After all, the person does not just lack knowledge about God’s existence, but he also does not believe or disbelieve it; indeed, he is readily doubtful and uncertain of either position, which is the definition of agnostic. And so, while other labels could certainly be offered to describe such a person, it does appear—again, based on the definitions of agnosticism that were provided above—that the best descriptor for such a person would be that he is an ‘agnostic-agnostic’. But such a label is redundant, confusing, and unnecessary, which is itself grounds to reasonably believe that having agnosticism be treated as somehow a separate category from atheism and theism is not the most appropriate way to proceed in this matter. However, note that this redundancy and confusion evaporates if we treat agnosticism as the middle-ground between atheistic and theistic belief. And this latter point, in conjunction with the fact that the main intention behind using the terms gnostic-atheism and agnostic-atheism can be better achieved by using such terms as certain-atheism or tentative-atheism, once again simply reinforces the argument that agnosticism is most accurately and appropriately understood as being tied to belief and as being a point-of-view which rests on the neutral mid-point between atheism and theism along the spectrum of theistic belief.

    Now, in response to the above points that negative lack-of-belief atheism has no place where it can properly fit in the spectrum of theistic belief, the atheist might seek to claim that it is precisely here where the idea of negative atheism fits. Indeed, since the term agnostic-agnostic is a redundant and strange way of describing a thinking adult who neither believes nor actively disbelieves in God, then it is exactly here that the term negative atheist belongs, for this term is meant to describe just such a person. And this actually is one spot where the term’s use might make sense. Thus you would have the term negative atheist, then agnostic-atheist, and then gnostic-atheist. But again, the point is not that the term negative atheist cannot be used in some way, but rather that’s its use always turns out to be less-than-best when compared to another option. For example, even if we accept Cline’s contention that we should divide atheism into agnostic-atheism and gnostic-atheism, there is still the question of why we should accept the term negative atheism rather than just plain agnosticism in this case. Indeed, instead of negative-atheism, agnostic-atheism, and gnostic-atheism, why not have straight agnosticism, agnostic-atheism, and gnostic-atheism. This latter position is not only perfectly respectable, but the term agnosticism better describes a lack of belief and doubtful position and it is a clearer term given that agnosticism is already often defined as a lack of belief. So again, even granting legitimacy to the idea of agnostic-atheism and gnostic-atheism, there is no reason that the adoption of this position requires the use of the term negative-atheism given that agnosticism fits this category just as well.

    Shaving Away Negative Atheism

    Over the Well, consider the two options that you have for describing the full range of non-believing positions. On the one hand, you have the option of using the terms that the proponents of negative atheism wish you to use, which include the term negative atheist for a person with a lack-of-belief in God, and also the term positive atheist, which is categorically different from a negative atheist given that a positive atheist positively affirms, at least to some degree, that God does not exist. But now, on this view, you also have to include the term agnostic, which is sort of hovering around waiting to be used. And so, proponents of this view also have to use such terms as agnostic-atheist and gnostic-atheist in order to get the idea of agnosticism to fit somewhere in their framework. But then the term gnostic-atheist becomes complicated because you would need to define it even further, or add different categories of gradation to it in order for it to genuinely reflect an atheist’s true position of how he believes atheism is true and to what strength does his belief extent. Furthermore, and as mentioned earlier, and in light of the numerous definitions which show agnosticism’s connection with belief, there is some also tension in this view, for we can legitimately wonder why a person who both lacks a belief in God’s existence and lacks knowledge of it is not an agnostic-agnostic rather than a negative atheist.

    By contrast to this first view is the second option, which claims that the best way to describe the full range of unbelieving positions is to use the term agnosticism for any person who neither believes nor actively disbelieves in the existence of God, and then to use the term atheist to describe someone who, to a greater or lesser degree, positively believes that God does not exist. And to differentiate between the different strengths of belief associated with a person’s atheism, this view employs common and easily understood means of showing just how strong the atheist’s belief concerning their atheism actually is.

    Now, when comparing these two options, we see that both cover the range of unbelieving positions which a person could hold and both options employ their terms in ways which are acceptable from a definitional perspective. However, the second option employs less terms. Given this fact, and given a judicious use of Occam’s Razor, it seems that we have an excellent reason to rationally prefer the second option to the first. Thus, we have a solid reason to prefer the option in which there is no such thing as negative atheism. And this conclusion becomes even clearer when we add the term theist to the mix. Indeed, for on the second option, we simply need to employ the terms agnostic, atheist, and theist, along with a scale of belief to describe the strength of the atheist’s or theist’s belief in their respective positions, in order to encompass the main God-related positions that a person could hold. By contrast, on the first option, we would have to employ the terms gnostic-atheist, agnostic-atheist, gnostic-theist, agnostic-theist, negative atheist, negative theist (see my book Turning the Tables on Atheism for an explanation of this term), along with a scale of belief to describe the strength of the agnostic-atheist’s or agnostic-theist’s belief in their respective positions, in order to encompass the main God-related positions that a person could hold. In essence, the point here is that our second option—where only the terms agnostic, atheist, and theist are used—will always be simpler than the first option, and thus Occam’s Razor tells us to prefer the second option over the first one.

    But the matter does not end there, for we can always use Occam’s Razor in a linguistic sense as well. What do I mean? I mean that, in terms of the language that we use, we should not complicate and/or obscure our terms or language unless there is a genuine need to do so. Call this the Linguistic Razor, if you will. But what this means in terms of this current discussion is that we have yet another reason to prefer the second option to the first one. After all, consider a number of points. First, why create and employ such a range of terms like negative atheism, positive atheism, agnostic-atheism, gnostic-atheism when the simpler and clearer terms of just agnosticism and atheism cover the same range of possible positions without needing all the extraneous jargon. There is no need for this. And, in fact, on the first view, the situation is even worse than what was just mentioned, for if, on this view, atheism can be legitimately understood as either a lack of belief about God’s existence, meaning negative atheism, or a positive belief that a God does not exist, meaning positive atheism, then, in order to be clear about which type of atheism is being discussed, you would need even more complicated terms. For example, in the case of someone who claimed to be an agnostic-atheist, the person would need to not only use that term, but, in order to clearly differentiate between the two possibilities of being someone who 1) did not claim to know that God did not exist but believed that he did not, and someone who 2) did not claim to know that God did not exist and who also did not believe that he did, then, technically, it would be required to specify whether you were an agnostic-positive-atheist or an agnostic-negative-atheist. And the same would be required on the theistic side as well. Also note that since the concept of gnostic-atheism would itself require more specificity in order to reflect the degree of belief that a person has concerning the truth of atheism, then, once again, we would require more complex terms like tentative-agnostic-atheist or firm-agnostic-atheist in order to reflect the different gradations of belief which are possible under the large umbrella of agnostic-atheism. And so, if a person wanted to be clear about his position, then the first option requires a large array of terms which are definitely more complex and convoluted than those presented by option two. And this is the first point to consider. Second, and as was mentioned earlier, employing the term atheism, or even such terms like tentative-atheism or certain-atheism, is more commonsensical and more understandable than such terms as agnostic-atheism or gnostic-atheism. Third, and as argued for in my book Turning the Tables on Atheism, why adopt a position that causes confusion and absurdity between the positions of so-called negative atheism and negative theism when this confusion can be avoided through the dropping of the idea of negative atheism (and negative theism) and simply adopting agnosticism in its place. Fourth, why employ an option that raises reasonable and legitimate concerns about whether negative atheism should be understood as agnostic-agnosticism, or if negative atheism is just another species of agnosticism, when getting rid of the idea of negative atheism and replacing it with simple agnosticism removes such confusion and uncertainty. Fifth, should we employ a term like gnostic-atheist if it is debatable whether this can even be considered an accurate term, or if, at the very least, this is a less accurate and less clear term than something like certain-atheism. And finally sixth, why prefer any option which has all these problems if the validity of that option is already argued against and denied by numerous high-value sources which have no reason to be favorable to theism.

    And so, given that our second option—the option that only employs the terms atheism, theism, and agnosticism—not only uses less terms than the first option, but also uses terms which are simpler and more easily understood, and terms that are more accurate, and terms which avoid any questions about the legitimacy of its terms, then, given this fact, and given a judicious use of Occam’s Razor in a linguistic setting—the Linguistic Razor, if you will—it thus seems that we have yet another reason to rationally prefer our so-called second option to the first one. And consequently, Occam’s Razor and the principle of parsimony—a tool that non-believers love to use—provide us with a solid reason to prefer the option in which there is no such thing as negative atheism or positive atheism. And so, since this will always be the case given these two options, then the second option will always be preferable to the first. Note as well that even if the atheist tired, for example, to introduce a new term to describe positive atheism—say, for example, the term niltheism, which means the belief that there are zero or no gods—thereby leaving atheism to simply mean negative atheism, then it would still be the case that the first option used more terms, and less clear terms, than option two to describe its position; furthermore, if atheism came to mean just a lack of belief in God, then atheism really would become just a different label for what many people today take to be agnosticism, and so, for all intents and purposes, in such a case, an atheist would be like an agnostic, which would be fine for the theist given that then the matter would simply be a game of semantics.

    Hence, the overall point here is to show that the intentions which motivated the creation of the terms agnostic-atheism or gnostic-atheism are not necessarily wrong, but rather that these intentions can be accomplished in a less problematic, more accurate, and simpler way, and that this more accurate and simpler way is thus the one that should be rationally preferred and employed precisely because is it simpler and more accurate. Ultimately, means that the best way to understand agnosticism is not to see it as being strictly about knowledge nor as an entirely separate category from atheism and theism but rather as an inter-related category on the spectrum of theistic belief which rests, as stated, in the middle between atheism and theism. And this, in turn, and as mentioned earlier, means that it is agnosticism which is the lack-of-belief position, and that any form of atheism is best understood as a positive point-of-view, not as a negative lack-of-belief position.

    Conclusion

    In this essay we have tackled two additional objections to the claim that it is inaccurate and less-than-best to endorse and employ the term negative atheism. And after addressing these two objections, it is clear that there are good reasons to once again agree that the idea of negative lack-of-belief atheism is not the best way to define atheism, and therefore it is less-than-fully rational to define it in that way given the reasons against doing so. This is not to say that the term negative atheism categorically cannot be defined as a lack-of-belief concerning the existence of God—for if we desire it to be so, then any term can be used to mean a good number of different things which are relatively inline to the word’s original meaning—but rather that it is better, and thus more rational, not to define it in this way given the existence of more appropriate terms which can be used to describe a person who lacks a belief in God. And so atheism, in the end, is always best understood as a positive position, not one which is just an absence of belief.

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