Yesterday on Friendly Atheist there was a vigorous debate in the comments section about whether there is a real and important difference between claiming one lacks belief in God (or gods) and outright claiming that there is no God (or gods). Here is a nice formulation of the argument that the distinction is an irrelevant bit of semantics, which might as well be jettisoned:
When they say “I’m not saying what I do believe, but merely stating a lack of belief.” It’s like:
– Do you think there is a god?
– Do you think there is no god then?
– So what do you think? Nothing?
– …Well, I can tell you what I don’t think. I don’t think god exists.
– So what do you do think?
– Well, I think I like muffins.
I think there is no god and so do you, folks. What’s wrong with that? I don’t get it.
For the rest of this post, I will explore why the difference between “lack of belief in God (or gods)” and “belief that there is no God (or gods)” is not only a real one but a vitally important one. What follows is an entirely rewritten and improved version of the ideas I sketched in the Friendly Atheist comments section from which the above quote comes.
The difference between lacking belief in God and believing there is no God is significant when it reflects the difference between an epistemological position and a metaphysical position. What matters is not whether or not you simply do not believe in God but on what justification you do not believe in God. In this post, I want to explore several different justifications for non-belief in God (or in different types of proposed or possible gods) and how one’s justificatory standards lead one to different kinds and degrees of non-belief.
An agnostic, whether athiest or theist, is someone who thinks that there is insufficient evidence either for proving or specifically disproving that a God of one or another type exists. The agnostic atheist is first and foremost an agnostic. She does not think that she has sufficiently conclusive evidence to either positively affirm or even specifically deny the existence of God, conceived of in one or more plausible ways. Similarly, many people of faith who think the existence of God cannot be sufficiently proven or disproven are also, in this sense, formally agnostics.
The person whose belief in God is most decisively based on faith, rather than reason, thinks that the evidence both that there is a God and that there is not a God is insufficient and amidst this sense of indeterminacy willfully opts to believe. This agnostic form of theist affirms the existence of a God of some sort despite thinking there is insufficient reason to think its existence can be persuasively demonstrated in rational terms. The agnostic theist often cites what she sees as the lack of conclusive evidence for disproving the existence of a certain kind of God as giving her permission to believe in such a God if she wishes. She places the burden of proof on the skeptic to conclusively demonstrate the God she wants to believe in does not exist and claims a right to such a belief as long as she never is convinced there is such an incontrovertible argument. Usually, but not necessarily, the agnostic theist commits herself explicitly to a religious form of theism and interpretation of God and its will, actions, and viewpoints, etc. By the principle that faith is epistemologically and ethically a good means for arriving at beliefs, the agnostic theist believes any number of things for which she admittedly has insufficient evidence as long as she can plausibly convince herself that the counter-evidence for these beliefs is not conclusive.
The agnostic atheist on the other hand opts to abstain from believing either that any God exists or that only inconclusively refuted god hypotheses are definitely false. What usually separates the agnostic atheist from the agnostic theist is either an implicit or explicit adherence to an epistemological and/or an ethical principle which holds that it is impermissible (either always or at least usually) to believe anything on insufficient evidence. Thinking that the evidence is insufficient to affirm either that there is a God (of some sort or another) or that there is no God (of some particular sort or another), the agnostic atheist argues that we should neither say there is a God (of any sort) or that there is not a God (of whatever sorts she thinks remain possible).
This position is, by default, a form of atheism since when one opts not to believe in a God, one is a non-believer in God. But, the agnostic atheist, restrains from actively believing that gods have been sufficiently disproved to believe specifically that there is no god and advance that position positively and with arguments offered as conclusive. The agnostic atheist’s position is essentially that where there is insufficient evidence one should not say that either God has been proven or that there is proof that there is no God.
The agnostic atheist appeals to an epistemological rule to explain her non-belief, rather than a sufficient metaphysical case either in favor of belief that there is a God or gods or in favor of the belief that there is no god or gods. This position, based as it is on a view of epistemological (and maybe ethical) requirements rather than metaphysical arguments, is primarily a position about what we can know or not know and how we should respond to knowing or not knowing.
This means that often the agnostic atheist’s focus in her atheism will be on rationalistic epistemology and ethics in general. What the agnostic atheist is primarily attached to is a commitment to a standard for belief, not a particular belief that there are no gods. What the agnostic atheist may primarily object to in the agnostic theist is not the belief in God itself but the adoption of faith itself.
What the agnostic atheist rejects in principle is belief on faith. Faith is when you choose to commit to believing what you yourself think is insufficiently supported according to the evidence and arguments understood by your own reason. For this reason, an agnostic atheist may passionately oppose religious beliefs, not out of any pretensions to claims of certainty that there are no gods, but out of strong assurance that her epistemological and ethical standards are correct in precluding any (or at least most) faith-based beliefs as unjustifiable. The agnostic atheist can be outraged at promulgations of dogmatic ideas and authoritarian practices and ways of thinking which all depend on faith for their acceptance. These things violate the very epistemological and ethical principles which lead the agnostic atheist to a default position of non-belief.
Strong, passionate, activist adherence to this principle of epistemology and/or ethics can all take place without any dogmatic commitment or faith commitment to an unsupported hypothesis that there are no gods whatsoever. The agnostic atheist can be insistent on epistemological and ethical grounds while being non-dogmatic and non-commital on what she takes to be unresolved (and maybe even unresolvable) metaphysical questions.
Before moving on I should explore another, important kind of agnostic atheist which the agnostic atheist which I have thus far been exploring should avoid being. It is possible that there can be an agnostic atheist who adheres to substantive metaphysical atheism as a matter of faith. We have thus far been considering only the agnostic atheist who both finds the evidence for and against a given god hypothesis inconclusive and who opts to be a non-believer as a matter of epistemological and ethical principles of humble restraint in belief claims. But it is also possible that an agnostic atheist could say, “I do not see sufficient evidence to think there are no gods, any more than I see sufficient evidence to think there is a God (or gods), but nonetheless I choose to believe there are no gods.” Such a positive metaphysical belief (either that there are no gods of any sort whatsoever or that is not some particular God which I take to be actually possible) constitutes a faith belief if I do not think I have sufficient evidence for it and yet I choose to believe it nonetheless.
Any belief beyond the scope of what I see as sufficient evidence is a belief by choice and a kind of faith belief, even if it is as typically irreligious as the belief there are no gods. I say typically irreligious because typically disbelief in gods correlates with lack of religion. Some religious traditions might be oriented around a faith commitment to disbelief in all gods. But also you can have a faith belief that there are no gods and yet reject all religion, where religion is taken to involve things historically central to it—rites, rituals, communal identity formation, authoritarian hierarchies of belief formation, etc. One can reject all religious trappings and still have a specific faith belief.
So, most agnostic atheists are atheists because their agnosticism is coupled with an anti-faith epistemology and/or ethics. Such agnostic atheists can passionately oppose faith-based beliefs in God, faith-based metaphysical disbelief in gods, and faith-based beliefs and practices of all other sorts that formally violate certain usually binding rules of epistemology and ethics; all without being guilty of adhering by faith to any dogmatic metaphysical attitudes or commitments of their own.
Before concluding, I want to make a few more crucial qualifications to ward off possible misunderstandings of my positions.
First, there are those who think that atheism or theism are positively supported by sufficient physical or metaphysical or other, mundane and everyday, sorts of evidence and argumentation. These are sometimes called “gnostic” theists and “gnostic” atheists and they do not deliberately endorse their belief or non-belief in God (or some aspect of this belief or non-belief) as a conscious matter of faith. They may hold other beliefs about God or beliefs related to their views on God by faith, but their decisive reason to believe there is a God of some sort or that there is no god of any sort is that that they think they see enough evidence for the proposition.
In this way, one can believe in God without faith. The agnostic may charge that the gnostic misunderstands his epistemic and/or ethical obligations and therefore positively believes without sufficient evidence which can meet the necessary standards for proper assent. The agnostic atheist may condemn the beliefs of gnostic theists and gnostic atheists as violating epistemological standards and asserting what cannot be asserted. The agnostic theist, on the other hand, may condemn the gnostic theist for presuming to know about matters which are properly subjects only for faith (for some reason) and condemn the gnostic atheist as mistakenly overestimating her evidence against the possibility of theist belief being true.
Not all agnostics need to condemn all gnostics, however. It is possible that the agnostic will reason that it is possible for others to have or understand the force of evidence and arguments which she does not. The agnostic, for example, might say to a given gnostic in reply to her reason-based argument for belief there is a God (or gods) or belief there are no gods, “I do not see the force of these arguments or understand why you think this piece of evidence counts as sufficient, but I nonetheless recognize that you are trying to adhere to rational standards of evidence and we simply have a sincere disagreement about what the evidence says.” In this way, the agnostic, whether atheist or theist, may judge that a gnostic also cares about and properly understands what is necessary to say one has sufficient evidence for a belief, and yet have a sincere disagreement about whether the standard is actually met. So the agnostic atheist may respect the rationalistic intentions of a gnostic theist, even as she vigorously disputes the gnostic theist’s evidence’s caliber or her arguments’ logic, correctness, conclusiveness, or persuasiveness. And the agnostic theist might say to a gnostic theist, “I believe on faith and think we can only believe on faith, but I respect that you have sincerely held arguments that convince you on rational terms, rather than primarily faith-based ones.”
Finally, the most important and overlooked point to add to all of the above is that one can be both an agnostic atheist with respect to some god hypotheses while being a gnostic atheist with respect to others. For example, I think that I have good, sufficient evidence and reasons to reject on metaphysical grounds the existence of all sorts of gods historically believed in. I think I have good ethical reason to rationally (and not by faith) believe that there simply is no omninpotent, omni-benevolent, morally perfect God. I think that various versions of the problem of evil are not just thought exercises but decisive disproofs of that proposed entity. I do not have faith that such a being does not exist. With respect to that proposed deity, given the definitions of power, goodness, and morality, which I have in mind, I am a gnostic atheist.
I am also a gnostic atheist about the historical God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus insofar as I think there is clearly sufficient countervailing evidence against belief in this being. Does being a gnostic atheist mean that I know with 100% certainty? No, but that’s because I do not know anything with that impossible, irrelevant, and dubious standard of knowledge which demands knowledge equate with certainty and nothing less than certainty. I can know things with high degrees of evidence without knowing them with incontrovertible certainty. And by such normal philosophical, scientific, psychological, ethical, and everyday mundane standards of knowledge, I can pile up numerous arguments that I think decisively disprove the faith beliefs of the Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, et al.
Nonetheless, I am an agnostic atheist about whether something like a unified principle of necessary being generates the universe and functions roughly equivalently to what a deist would think of as “God”. I am agnostic about whether a Spinozistic conception of the divine is not metaphysically plausible and worth calling “divine”. On these points I am quite persuadable towards belief. I do not think I have a clear enough idea of how exactly to argue one way or the other and I can see (or at least imagine) compelling arguments in a couple of directions.
I do not think that proving such a physical or metaphysical principle would lend the slightest credence towards the superstitious deities and the ethical contradiction “omnipotent omnibenevolent God”, which the major Western religions teach. So, I am an gnostic atheist about them. Again, I positively reject the hypotheses of all such gods not with the presumption of 100% certainty, but also not with any decisive volitional act of faith whatsoever, but rather guided only by philosophically, scientifically, ethically, and psychologically grounded reasons alone.
On the question of a personal god, I am technically an agnostic atheist but strongly consider assenting to positive belief that there is no such being based on some strong philosophical considerations (again, not as a matter of faith). At this point, I feel the evidence tips something like 75%-95% against the possibility of a personal god (to extremely roughly quantify something that cannot be truly quantified with any precision). I think I have stronger reasons to reject a personal divinity than to reject a Spinozistic one (about which I am more firmly an agnostic atheist), but I do not have as strong reasons to reject it as I have for rejecting the deities of local religions (including the local Judaic, Christian, and Islamic monotheistic god).
I hope these brief characterizations of my own views illustrate the ways that we can distinguish consistently between being agnostic atheists about some god hypotheses and gnostic atheists about others. I hope I have also made clear what it means and does not mean to say one has a rational vs. a faith-based belief that there is or is not a given god of a certain sort. And, most importantly, I hope I have made my main point clear that there is a crucial difference between on the one hand not believing in any gods as a matter of epistemological restraint which seeks to neither affirm nor deny in the absence of sufficient evidence and, on the other hand believing one has metaphysical, ethical, physical, or other reasons to think one knows that there are no gods (or that specific god hypotheses are most probably false).
For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above. It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.