Why Don’t All Theists Uncertain of God’s Existence Call Themselves Agnostics?

Richard Dawkins was debating the Archbishop of Canterbury when this happened:

There was surprise when Prof Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator.

The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” Prof Dawkins answered that he did.

An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: “You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.”

As PZ Myers replied:

what kind of philosopher is unaware that you can be both agnostic and atheist at the same time?

And, I would add, any philosopher apprised of contemporary epistemology should know full well that knowledge does not require certainty. That’s a ludicrously unrealistic standard—one never employed for countless uncontroversial knowledge claims. Here’s the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on reliablism, the dominant theory of knowledge among contemporary epistemologists. Read it (or just search for the word “certain”) and see how often the issue of attaining certainty comes up in determining what counts for knowledge or not.

Professor Dawkins’s reply should have asked Kenny why he did not ask the equivalent question of the Archbishop, “Are you 100% certain there is a creator?” And if he wasn’t, shouldn’t that make him an agnostic too?*

Whenever a theist insists an atheist call himself an agnostic simpliciter (rather than an agnostic atheist or, even, a gnostic atheist) for not being 100% certain there is no God, this should be that atheist’s automatic reply, to call the theist an agnostic (simpliciter—not an agnostic theist) for not being 100% certain there is a God.

In truth, though, I think a theist who believes herself to be persuaded by a preponderance of evidence that there is a god should not actually call herself an agnostic theist, even if she is not certain. She should call herself a knowing theist, or a “gnostic theist” (to be distinguished in a technical sense from the ancient gnostics). And I think that those who think god’s existence cannot be proved well enough for a knowledge claim should call themselves agnostic theists. And an atheist who believes she can know there is no god based on the preponderance of the evidence should identify as a gnostic atheist and one who does not think such is possible should identify as an agnostic atheist. It’s all much clearer and more precise this way.

Your Thoughts?

*This paragraph was substantially edited to correct for my mistaken impression that Kenny, based on his work on Aquinas, did not identify as an agnostic. Wikipedia says the following:

Although deeply interested in traditional Catholic teaching and continuing to attend the Catholic mass,[2] Kenny now explicitly defines his position as anAgnostic, explaining in his What I believe both why he is not a theist and why he is not an atheist. His 2006 book What I believe has (as Ch 3) “Why I am Not an Atheist” which begins: “Many different definitions may be offered of the word ‘God’. Given this fact, atheism makes a much stronger claim than theism does. The atheist says that no matter what definition you choose, ‘God exists’ is always false. The theist only claims that there is some definition which will make ‘God exists’ true. In my view, neither the stronger nor the weaker claim has been convincingly established”. He goes on “the true default position is neither theism nor atheism, but agnosticism … a claim to knowledge needs to be substantiated; ignorance need only be confessed.”[3] He defends the rationality of an agnostic praying to a God whose existence he doubts, stating “It surely is no more unreasonable than the act of a man adrift in the ocean, trapped in a cave, or stranded on a mountainside, who cries for help though he may never be heard or fires a signal which may never be seen.”[4]

Thanks to Erp for correcting my (hypocritical?) error. It seems Kenny may be an agnostic theist. Curiously, this raises the question why he did not seem to countenance the possibility that Dawkins was an agnostic atheist.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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