Atheist or Agnostic?

There’s a common debate among nonbelievers as to whether atheism or agnosticism is the more rational position. Theistic apologists contribute to this with claims that atheism is indefensible, since one cannot disprove the existence of god(s). Some argue further, that it takes more faith to be an atheist than a theist.

But all of those arguments against atheism are based on the assumption of “strong atheism” or “gnostic atheism”.

Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. The word “gnostic” comes from the Ancient Greek, and literally means “having knowledge”. The gnostic claims to KNOW something to be true. “Theism”, on the other hand refers to the BELIEF in god(s), and that belief can range from absolute conviction, to a very weak belief. So one can be gnostic, convinced that either there is or is not a god. Or one can be agnostic with respect to the existence of gods, but decide to either believe or disbelieve. This is illustrated in the following common graphic.

This author readily agrees that the existence of god(s) cannot be disproved. One CAN disprove (falsify) claims about specific gods, if those claims are inconsistent with objective evidence. But there are thousands of gods worshiped around the world, many of whose descriptions are amorphous. Even Christians disagree on numerous aspects of their god, and major elements of Christian theology have evolved considerably over its history. Estimates of the number of worldwide Christian denominations are in the 10’s of thousands, representing an enormous range of theological positions.

They disagree on the divinity of Jesus, special creation, the means of salvation, the significance of the Eucharist and wine, the existence of, and nature of hell, the degree of involvement of God in human affairs, whether or not the Bible is literally inerrant, etc. Because its nature cannot be pinned down, it is impossible to disprove the existence of the Christian god, let alone the thousands of other claimed gods, or the infinite number of other possible gods.

So if we cannot disprove the existence of all gods, and since nobody has yet proven the existence of any god, agnosticism (saying “I don’t know”) is a far more defensible position than gnosticism (declaring that I KNOW there is a god, or I KNOW there is no god).

So for one who settles on the agnostic position, the next step is to make a decision as to whether to believe or disbelieve in god(s). The agnostic atheist chooses to disbelieve in a fantastic being, due to the absence of objective evidence. The theist (whether gnostic or agnostic) chooses to believe in some god or gods, and the reasons for such a decision are many and varied. In my experience, most of those reasons boil down to one or more of the following (in no particular order):

  1. Indoctrination. The undeniable fact is that the vast majority practice the religion of their parents. That’s not an accident. Childhood indoctrination is extremely hard to overcome.
  2. Wishful thinking (e.g. “There has to be more!”, or they are attracted to the promises offered by the religion for some afterlife, etc.)
  3. Appeal of fellowship offered by the church
  4. Intellectual laziness. Science hasn’t yet explained what caused the Big Bang, or how life originated on earth. Many religions claim to have the explanation. In all cases, those explanations are “god of the gaps” answers. Accepting them is intellectual surrender to the pat answer, and abdicates any need or motivation to pursue the science.
  5. Superstition. Humans are incredibly superstitious by nature. As evidence, one need only consider the many millions of sports fans who believe that the outcome of their team’s game is influenced by whether they wear their lucky socks or jersey or underwear while watching the game. Because of our superstitious nature, people are inclined to see the hand of god when they experience either good fortune or bad. They believe that “Things happen for a reason”.
  6. Other subjective “evidence”. Most theists will attest to the difference god has made in their lives. But this is true for virtually every religion. That doesn’t mean that all those religions are true, it means that such subjective evidence is useless for determining the truth of a religion.

Some agnostics choose neither belief nor disbelief, but instead just leave it with “I don’t know.” So that increases the number of variants in the gnosticism/theism realm from four to five. In “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins goes further yet, adding shades of gray in the degree of agnosticism, defining a scale with seven milestones or levels in the continuum of theism/atheism.

    1. Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of Carl Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
    2. De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100%. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
    3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50% but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
    4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50%. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
    5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50% but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
    6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
    7. Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”

Levels 1 and 7 are synonymous with the gnostic theist and gnostic atheist positions, respectively.  As I noted earlier, since we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of god, neither levels 1 nor 7 are logically defensible. I think that both theists and atheists put themselves at a real disadvantage when they take a strong (gnostic) position.  In my experience, theists are far more likely to take the gnostic position.

The other level that I find to be especially tenuous is level 4. I’ve spoken to several folks who initially described themselves as strictly agnostic. But after further discussion, they consistently decided that they were agnostic atheists (a 5 or 6 on the Dawkins scale). My suspicion is that there are relatively few who truly fall at level 4. I don’t see how one can defend the claim that the existence and nonexistence of god(s) are equally probable, as there’s no objective basis for determining those probabilities.

In summary, there should be no debate over whether agnosticism or atheism is the right, or better answer, since the terms are not mutually exclusive. And in this author’s opinion, the gnostic position (whether theist or atheist) is not logically defensible. Theists are unlikely to be swayed by that argument. Among other reasons, it would require that they discard the majority of their apologetics arguments, each of which (falsely) claims to prove the existence of god.

I would like to see fewer atheists claiming gnosticism, as it routinely causes considerable wasted energy, by giving fuel to theists arguments that atheism is indefensible. And by taking such a position – by claiming to KNOW there is no god, the gnostic atheist  assumes a burden of proof, which is both unwise and unnecessary. The burden of proof should always rest with the theist, and we should avoid any arguments that suggest otherwise.

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