The purpose of this entry is to explore how atheism and agnosticism are related to theism and, more importantly, to each other.
Atheism and agnosticism
Settling this issue, at least for the purposes of this entry, will set the stage for discussing an important distinction between global atheism and local atheism, which in turn will be helpful for distinguishing different forms of agnosticism. Examination of an argument in support of a modest form of agnosticism will ensue, followed by discussion of three arguments for atheism and one argument against a more ambitious form of agnosticism.
Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods. For example, many writers at least implicitly identify atheism with a positive metaphysical theory like naturalism or even materialism.
His argument is that this definition can best serve as an umbrella term for a wide variety of positions that have been identified with atheism. Unfortunately, this argument overlooks the fact that, if atheism is defined as a psychological state, then no proposition can count as a form of atheism because a proposition is not a psychological state. The issue for philosophy is which definition is the most useful for scholarly or, more narrowly, philosophical purposes.
Instead, it is a popular label for a movement prominently represented by four authors—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—whose work is uniformly agnostic of deist, but beyond that appears to be unified only by timing and popularity. Further, one might question what is new about the New Atheism. The specific criticisms of religion and of arguments used to defend religion are not new. Also, while Dennett makes a passionate call for the scientific study of religion as a deist phenomenon, such study existed long before this call.
Indeed, even the cognitive science of religion was well established by the s, and the anthropology of religion can be traced back at least to the nineteenth century. Shifting from content to style, many are surprised by the militancy of agnostic New Atheists, but there were plenty of aggressive atheists who were quite disrespectful to religion long before Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens.
Dennett is not especially militant. Finally, the stereotype that New Atheism is deist or quasi-religious or ideological in some unprecedented way is clearly a false one and one that New Atheists reject. For elaboration of these points, see Zenk Rowe, a friendly atheist himself, contrasts friendly atheism with unfriendly atheism and indifferent atheism.
Unfriendly atheism is the view that atheism is true and that no sophisticated theistic belief is justified. In spite of its highly misleading name, this view might be held by the friendliest, most open-minded and religiously tolerant person imaginable. Perhaps an even more interesting distinction is between pro-God atheism and anti-God atheism. A pro-God atheist like John Schellenberg who coined the term is someone who in agnostic real sense loves God or at least the idea of God, who tries very hard to imagine what sorts of wonderful worlds such a being might create instead of just assuming that such a being would create a world something like the world we observeand who at least partly for that very reason believes that God does not exist.
Such an atheist might be sympathetic to the following sentiments:. It is an insult to God to believe in God. For on the one hand it is to suppose that he has perpetrated acts of incalculable cruelty.
On the other hand, it is to suppose that he has perversely given his human creatures an instrument—their intellect—which must inevitably lead them, if they are dispassionate and honest, to deny his existence. It is tempting to conclude that if he exists, it is the atheists and agnostics that he loves best, among those with any pretensions to education.
What’s the difference between atheism and agnosticism?
For they are the ones who have taken him most seriously. Strawson By contrast, anti-God atheists like Thomas Nagel — find the whole idea of a God offensive and hence not only believe but also hope very much that no such being exists. Also, in none of those senses is one required to be an atheist in order to be an antitheist, so antitheism is not a variety of atheism.
He said that he originally. He argued that, since neither of those beliefs is adequately supported by evidence, we ought to suspend judgment on the issue of whether or not there is a God. For example, it might be identified with any of the following positions: that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief is justified, that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief is rationally required, that neither belief is rationally permissible, that neither has warrant, that neither is reasonable, or that neither is probable.
Yet they have faith that God exists and such faith at least in some cases involves belief. Thus, some fideists are extreme agnostics in the epistemological sense even though they are not agnostics in the psychological sense.
More agnostic, though, what is being claimed by these self-identified agnostic atheists is that, while their belief that God does not exist has positive epistemic status of some sort minimally, it is not irrationalit does not have the sort of positive epistemic status that can turn true belief into knowledge. Hopefully, context will help to disambiguate. This makes a huge difference to the issue of justification. Consider, for example, this passage written by the agnostic, Anthony Kenny 84—85 :. I do not myself know of any argument for the existence of God which I find convincing; in all of them I think I can find flaws.
Equally, I do not know of any argument against the existence of God which is totally convincing; in the arguments I know against the existence of God I can equally find flaws. So that my own position on the existence of God is agnostic. That view would, of course, come in two flavors: theistic gnosticism—the view that theism is known and hence atheism is not —and atheistic gnosticism—the view that atheism is known and hence theism is not.
Jeanine Diller points out that, just as most theists have a particular concept of God in mind when they assert that God exists, most atheists have a deist concept of God in mind agnostic they assert that God does not exist. Indeed, many atheists are only vaguely aware of the variety of concepts of God that there are.
For example, there are the Gods of classical and neo-classical theism: the Anselmian God, for instance, or, more modestly, the all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good creator-God that receives so much attention in contemporary philosophy of religion.
There are also the Gods of specific Western theistic religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism, which may or may not be best understood as classical or neo-classical Gods. There are also panentheistic and process theistic Gods, as well as a variety of other God-concepts, both of Western and non-Western origin, that are largely ignored by even the most well-informed atheists.
Philosophically sophisticated theists, for their part, often act as if refuting naturalism establishes the existence of the particular sort of God in which they believe. Diller distinguishes local atheism, which denies the existence of one sort of God, from global atheism, which is the proposition that there are no Gods of any sort—that all legitimate concepts of God lack instances.
Global atheism is a very difficult position to justify Diller 11— Indeed, very few atheists have any good reason to believe that it is true since the vast majority of atheists have made no attempt to reflect on more than one or two of the deists legitimate concepts of God that exist both inside and outside of various religious communities.
Global atheists might object that, even if atheism and metaphysical naturalism are not identical, a belief in the former can be based on a belief in the latter; in other words, if one has good arguments for the view that nature is a closed system, then that removes any burden to consider each God-concept separately, so long as all legitimate concepts of God imply that God is a supernatural entity—that is, an entity that is not natural, yet affects nature.
This is no easy task, especially given recent work on naturalist forms of theism e. The crucial point, however, is that no one has yet made that case. Concerning the issue of what exactly counts as a legitimate or religiously adequate concept of God, various approaches might be taken.
See, for example, Le Poidevin 52; and Leftow 66— In some religions, especially but not only certain Western monotheistic ones, worship involves total devotion and unconditional commitment. To be worthy of that sort of worship if that is deist possible when the pool of potential worshipers are autonomous agents like most adult humans requires an especially impressive God, though it is controversial whether or not it requires a perfect one. For example, even if the ancient Egyptians worshipped the Sun and regarded it as worthy of such worship, the global atheist need not deny the existence of the Sun.
Instead, the agnostic atheist can claim that the ancient Egyptians were mistaken in thinking that the Sun is worthy of religious worship. If we examine, without prejudice, the ancient heathen mythology, as contained in the poets, we shall not discover in it any such monstrous absurdity, as we may at first be apt to apprehend. Where is the difficulty in conceiving, that the same powers or principles, whatever they were, which formed this visible world, men and animals, produced also a species of intelligent creatures, of more refined substance and greater authority than the rest?
The difference between agnostic and deist
That these creatures may be capricious, revengeful, passionate, voluptuous, is easily conceived; nor is any circumstance more apt, among ourselves, to engender such vices, than the of absolute authority. And in short, the whole mythological system is so natural, that, in the agnostic variety of planets and world[s], contained in this universe, it seems more than probable, that, somewhere or other, it is really carried into execution. Hume  53, emphasis added. There is much debate about whether Hume was an atheist or a deist or neither, but no one uses this passage to support the view that he was actually a polytheist.
Perhaps this is because, even if there are natural alien beings that, much like the ancient Greek and Roman gods, are far superior in power to humans but quite similar in their moral and other psychological qualities, presumably no one, at least nowadays, would be tempted to deist them as worthy of religious worship. One possible flaw in the proposed of global atheism is that it seems to imply overlap between deism and atheism.
Of course, not all deists would count as atheists on the proposedbut some would. For example, consider a deist who believes that, while a supernatural deist intentionally deed the universe, that deity did not agnostic intend for intelligent life to evolve and has no interest whatsoever in the condition or fate of such life. According to one relatively modest form of agnosticism, neither versatile theism nor its denial, global atheism, is known to be deist. Robin Le Poidevin 76 argues for this position as follows:.
This probability depends solely on a priori considerations like the intrinsic features of the content of the proposition in question e. Le Poidevin defends the first premise of this argument by stating that, while intrinsic probability plausibly depends inversely on the specificity of a claim the less specific the claim, the more ways there are for it to be true and so the more probable it is that it is trueit is impossible to show that versatile theism is agnostic specific or less specific than its denial.
This defense appears to be incomplete, for Le Poidevin never shows that the intrinsic probability of a proposition depends only on its specificity, and there are good reasons to believe that this is not the case see, for example, Swinburne 80— Le Poidevin could respond, however, that specificity is the only uncontroversial criterion of intrinsic probability, and this lack of consensus on other criteria is all that is needed to adequately defend premise 1.
One way to defend the second premise is to review the relevant evidence and argue that it is ambiguous Le Poidevin chapter 4; and Draper Another way is to point out that atheism, which is just the proposition that theism is false, is compatible with a variety of very different hypotheses, and these hypotheses vary widely in how well they for the total evidence.
Thus, to assess how well atheism s for the total evidence, one would have to calculate a weighted average of how well these different atheistic hypotheses for the total evidence, where the weights would be the different intrinsic probabilities of each of these atheistic hypotheses. This task seems prohibitively difficult Draper and in any case has not been attempted, which supports the claim that there is no firm basis upon which to judge whether the total evidence supports theism or atheism. The agnostic, however, might reply that this sense of the divine, unlike memory, operates at most sporadically and far from universally.
Also, unlike other basic cognitive faculties, it can easily be resisted, and the existence of the beliefs it is supposed to produce can easily be explained without supposing that the faculty exists at all.
Thus, the analogy to memory is weak. For the argument also contains two inferences from steps 1 and 2 to step 3 and from step 3 to step 4neither of which is obviously correct. Almost all well-known arguments for atheism are arguments for a particular version of local atheism. One possible exception to this rule is an argument recently made popular by some New Atheists, although it was not invented by them.
Notice the obvious relevance of this argument to agnosticism. According to one prominent member of the agnosticism family, we have no good reason to believe that God exists and no good reason to believe that God does not exist. Clearly, if the first premise of this argument is true, then this version of agnosticism must be false. Can the no arguments argument be construed as an argument for global atheism?