Re: irrational atheists

Max More (
Mon, 11 Jan 1999 23:32:00 -0800

At 06:37 PM 1/11/99 +0000, Nick wrote:
>Max More wrote:
>> I don't understand your parsing of the term. What does the "the" mean in
>> (a-the)-ism?
>God, or divinity. If you regard the "a-" as attaching not to
>"theism", but to "theo", then you get "no-god". And then you
>attach "ism" and you get "the doctrine that there is no-god".
>Creative ethymology :-)

Okay, I think that's fine. If you take "atheism" as an ism, then it requires a positive belief. My main concern was to note that it's just as legitimate to define "atheism" as simply "lack of belief in a god". Can we agree that it can be reasonably defined both ways?

>> I can't agree. "Gnosis" is definitely related to knowledge. The common
>> usage is "someone who isn't sure whether there is a god". The Dictionary of
>> Philosophy says: agnosticism 1. The belief (a) that we cannot have
>> knowledge of God and (b) that it is impossible to prove that God exists or
>> does not exist. Gnosis relates to knowledge, not belief.
>But you just cited a definition that begins "The belief ..."! Thus an
>agnostic is not one without knowledge, but one who believes either
>(a) or (b).

You might define "communism" as "the belief that all property should be owned in common and not individually". Would that mean that communism was all about belief? The definitions of agnosticism above make *knowledge* the issue, not belief. It's a belief about whether theological issues are within the purview of knowledge.

Two points which might help explain why I hold to the view that agnosticism is about one's views on what is knowable and not about the content of a belief:

Taking atheism in its more general sense "lack of belief", then I think one can be an atheist and an agnostic at the same time. This would be someone who they cannot know one way or the other about the existence of a god, and who therefore does not believe. (They would not, if consistent, also deny the existence of such a being, though they might think it unlikely, but be unable to show it unlikely enough to constitute knowledge of non-existence.)

More controversially, I think one could be a theist and an agnostic. This would be someone who beliefs, but admits that they do not know, at least in any normal sense of "know" that they would apply to anything else. They might say they "have faith" without claiming this to be a special form of knowledge. While being both a theist and an agnostic is logically consistent (though irrational), it's probably not common. That's because to admit that you believe without having knowledge is likely to make you realize you're being unreasonable. Instead, most theists insist that their "faith" is really some special foundation for knowledge--such as through religious experience, etc.

>> definition, which I think did elsewhere. An agnostic is one who thinks that
>> they do not or cannot know whether there is a god.
>Yes, that is correct.
>> Whether you are an agnostic or atheist about any specific god depends on
>> your view of what's required before you think you know something. I don't
>> equate knowledge with certainty, which is why I call myself an atheist and
>> not an agnostic, at least when we're talking about the
>> Christian/Islamic/Jewish God.
>In that sense I am likewise an atheist.

Okay, so I don't we disagree about very much! Probably just the issue of whether agnosticism is about knowledge or belief. I'm not going to dig into that further, since it will take us deep into the swamps of epistemology!


Max More, Ph.D.
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Philosophical issues of technology
President, Extropy Institute:,