Sunday, 16 June 2019

Atheism vs Agnosticism

Gratuitous piccy of Jack the alpaca
In today’s post, I’m making a foray into a difficult and controversial area of epistemology. I am going to consider what it means to be an atheist or an agnostic and examine the distinction between these philosophical viewpoints and why we should care.

Straight off I am going to state my own partisan viewpoint and declare, without reservation, that I’m an atheist and a rational atheist at that. To be intellectually consistent it is a good idea to start off with a couple of definitions; hopefully, this will aid clarity of thought. Atheist: An absence in the belief of deities. My definition of atheism is not the only one, but on balance, the definition given here is the most honest, useful and intellectually valid. It is best to see atheism, not as a belief system but a negative proposition. If a belief in god(s) did not exist then the concept of atheism would have no epistemological content. In the same way that a belief in an invisible supernatural entity called Fred living on the moon would make me an afredist (ie I have bo belief in such an entity). The reason I’m not a afredist (sorry Fred) is that no one believes in a supernatural invisible entity living on the moon called Fred (well I hope Fredists do not exist). Hence the expression, afredist, becomes superfluous. Agnostic: One who believes that it is impossible to know whether there is a god(s). This belief is based on the limitations of rational knowledge. Thus deities, if they exist, belong to a supernatural realm and by definition, supernatural realms cannot be accessed from the natural world. Agnostics, specifically agnostic-atheists, consider the presence of supernatural realms highly implausible but not impossible. But even if such a realm existed it would have no impact or influence on our natural world. Therefore, it could be argued that the ‘existence’ of a supernatural world is tantamount to non-existence and thus the rational difference between atheism and agnosticism becomes moot. I would like to add to this mix by proposing the following possibility. Is it possible for an agnostic to believe in the existence of god (agnostic-theism)? There have been agnostics who have believed in the existence of god but considered the nature of god unknowable. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides held such a view. I consider this form of agnostism intellectually unintelligible. Surely to ‘know’ that god exists is to state an attribute of god, ie god’s existence. This implies some knowledge about god which refutes god’s unknowability (this is a real word). This is an inconsistent stance and introduces a contradiction and we all know that a contradiction is an abomination unto the laws of logic. I thus determine that the term ‘agnostic-theist’ is without rational content and will receive no further consideration or discussion. What about the other side of the agnostic coin: the agnostic-atheist? The problem here, I think, is that the definition of atheism and agnostic-atheist tends to merge rendering agnostic-atheist, superfluous. It is my contention that agnosticism is not a rational and valid ‘third way’ as distinct from frank atheism or theism. To my mind, there are only two alternatives: belief and non-belief. I would be interested to hear what my thoughtful readers think about the topic. Do you agree on my stance or is it possible to rescue agnosticism from the epistemological rubbish tip?

One penultimate point………When someone says they are an atheist, we can’t infer any other beliefs in association. For instance, it is oft stated that atheists are communists. While it is true that communists are notoriously atheistic we can’t assume an atheist’s political stance on their avowed atheist belief. Again, ignorant folk will state that atheists are amoral as they lack the check on their behaviour due to the belief in an all-seeing/knowing deity. This is not a tenable position. Undoubtedly some atheists are amoral as are some theists and conversely the opposite is also true. The amoral atheist is amoral; the amoral Christian is a hypocrite.  

The point of this post is to promote deeper thought with regard to the concepts of theism and atheism and perhaps encourage some folk to evaluate some of the pertinent arguments involved. And a final point on this topic: some folk will state their agnosticism without a full appreciation of what agnosticism means, from a rational standpoint. Perhaps they are attracted to the concept as it carries a patina of intellectual respectability, at least in some quarters.         

I have several posts in the pipeline, all very sensible in nature. I’m working on a second post on Biocentrism which, hopefully, will come to fruition within the week. I’ve also resurrected (pun intended) a series of posts concerning the development of Christianity over the past 2,000.

It is noted that my posts are taking a serious (nay sensible) turn of late. I blame the new medication which keeps me lucid but robs me of my creativity. If I lose my essence, my muse, my innate insanity, what have I become? The dilemma I face is which pill I should eschew in order to retain/regain the unceasing and trenchant cacophony in my head? Not all the voices tell me to burn stuff. Often they direct me to perform a light but distinctive singeing. But when they do insinuate, tis always at 4 am as I lie naked, legs akimbo covered with a sheen of corruption (ie sweat- what did you think I was talking about?). Mayhap, I should stop taking the capsules of red and gold or perhaps the mauve tablets? I’ll leave the decision to my readers. Please state a preference in the comments. 

Gratuitous image of Shagger, looking cute


  1. Bloody hell. In at the deep end. Again. Not that I believe in “hell” or its alternative - being a devout atheist.

    I know you will be well aware of Epicurus (via Lactantius) who summed it up eloquently. Not exact words but worth repeating ...

    Is God willing to prevent evil but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent
    Is he able but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?

    “I blame the new medication which keeps me lucid but robs me of my creativity. If I lose my essence, my muse, my innate insanity, what have I become? The dilemma I face is which pill I should eschew in order to retain/regain the unceasing and trenchant cacophony in my head?"

    Aha, a kindred spirit who is also now awake at 04:30 due to the sweat soaking me and the bedclothes. I find codeine, morphine and beer keep the “edge” but keep the pain at a distance.

    Biocentrism can wait.

    1. Yea, I think Epicurus summed up the problem of 'Evil' very well. Christian apologists have made up a whole system of theology, called theodicy, to 'deal' with the problem. The Christian concept of the deity renders the exercise futile. Oxycontin + Tramadol + Beer = Bliss

    2. Theodicy? Ok. A new one to me. Thanks. The quote 'the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know' comes to mind.

    3. Hi Grizwald, I wrote about the problem of evil a while back. You can access the post here:

  2. Oh, and an afredist. But not so devout.

  3. Surely an "a" suffix negates? So a believer in Fred would be a Fredist, a non-believer an Afredist?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I think that my wording is correct in context. However, I can see where some ambiguity can creep in and I've amended the text for clarity. Thanks for the comment. Anything which helps in giving the gist without confusion is welcome.

  4. There is, of course, the possibility that this existence is the hell from a previous life. But then I look at our "élite" masters and ponder upon whether I could have been such an evil bastard as to deserve them.

    1. Mayhap Ted, you have been a very naughty boy in a past life. Don't worry next time you are coming back as Ted the alpaca.

    2. When I look at the state of the UK today, I can only believe I must have been Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, & Jack The Ripper all rolled into one to have deserved the circumstances which surround me. And I'm not even allowed to seek solace with my two friends, Smith & Wesson...