Re: Why Atheism Beats Agnosticism

T0Morrow (
Mon, 27 Apr 1998 12:22:14 EDT (Webb_S) writes:

> I suggest defining the terms this way: Agnosticism (literally, "without
> knowledge") means that one doesn't know whether god exists, and atheism
> (literally, "without god") means the disbelief in god, or, equivalently,
> the belief that god does not exist.
> Defined this way, there is no reason to struggle with the implicit XOR
> frequently associated with these terms. I am both an agnostic AND an
> atheist; while I acknowledge that it is impossible to _know_ (i.e.,
> prove) god's (non)existence, it is my belief, based on an absence of
> evidence for a god, that god does not exist.

That strikes me as pretty sensible, though I imagine that theists would assail
you with claims that they *have* got evidence of the existence of god(s). You
might well counter with an argument about what constitutes valid evidence,
quickly leading to deep epistemological waters, but at least you would have
moved off of theological territory.

I suggest that the surest way out of this fix is to move away from questions
of whether you do or do not believe in divine entities. In fact, it often
proves helpful to discard entirely talk about beliefs. Rather, I prefer (when
trying to keep on epistemologically solid ground) to speak about working
hypothesis about the world, which I hold with greater or lesser conviction.
Like Laplace, I have little need for the god hypothesis. But the atheistic
certainty in god's non-existence strikes me as a bit too cock-sure.

Theists may also pose a question for anyone (including me) who adopts the
agnostic line: " Well, then, what *do* you know?" I'd respond that I know
precious little--just my own sensory experiences (that, eg, I'm now seeing
black and white patterns, that I hear a light humming I attribute to my
computer's fan, and so forth). By posing this question, the theist wouuld aim
at showing that the agnostic has too-strict standards for knowledge, and thus
has little of value to say about theological matters.

The agnostic could reply using the sort of epistemology described above: "I
may not *know* much, but I have a *lot* of good working hypotheses about the
world. And most of them I hold with far, far greater certainty than the
putative hypothesis that gods exist."