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.

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.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Uh, why do you even want to attempt clarity and precision in theological discussions?

    You’ll get more use out of Sanskrit grammar in a NASCAR pitstop or Riemannian geometry in hip-hop.

  • Asad


    I think it necessary to make a distinction between certain knowledge, probable knowledge, probable opinion, and error. Certainly most of what we know fall into the later three categories, but there are certain things that we know immediately and with absolute certainty, e.g; the raw sensory input, awareness of perceiving the sensory input, etc.

    P.S: I haven’t gone through the article you mentioned in your post, and therefore apologies if the matter is already dealt with in the article in detail,and my comment has been redundant.

  • Erp

    Anthony Kenny does call himself an agnostic. I haven’t listen to the entire broadcast to know whether the Telegraph’s depiction of Kenny’s reaction is correct.

  • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

    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

    Thank you for that bit of clarity! The number of roadblocks in front of agnostic atheism are far too numerous for me now that I have spent close to a decade thinking about it. To get to anything worthy of the title deity at all, most of what we know to be true would have to be violated.

    What always rubs me the wrong way about the usual description of strong or gnostic atheism is that it is usually held to a degree of certainty that is unreasonable for any other kind of knowledge–it is equated with absolute certainty.

    Such errorless knowledge does not exist and couldn’t exist for the obvious reason of one having to know everything reflexively. In reality, there will always be room for error, even with the simplest, most base knowledge claims such as, “There is no dragon in my garage”. People using agnostic to mean that they are willing to change what they consider true based on a new perspective or new evidence are only confusing the issue, which is that we know that there are severe problems with theism as a set of truth claims about reality.

  • Josh, Official SpokesGay

    My thoughts are that this is just as stupid as it ever was. 1,000 years ago. 2,000. However many thousand one wishes to count back.

    There’s no reason to believe in a god other than the fact that it’s a matter of social currency. That’s it. Nothing more. It isn’t more complicated than that, it’s not a “deep” or “important” philosophical question.

    It’s just a load of bullshit that we, societally, have collectively agreed to deem a Very Important Subject.

    That professional philosophers occupy themselves with this (especially those who know full well it’s nothing but popular bullshit that demands lip-service) is a mark against a class of people who purport to devote their time to actually deep epistemological questions. Those exist. God doesn’t. Pretending it’s a question in legitimate controversy makes one look fucking dumb.

  • http://kalamazoopost.blogspot.com Tony61

    Has nobody read Sir Richard’s book, The God Delusion? Really, it’s very good and supposedly quite popular. In it he goes into detail about the various levels of the “theism–agnosticism–atheism” spectrum and calls himself a “6 on the scale of 7″ where 1 is absolute surety God exists and 7 absolute surety God does not exist. He calls himself an agnostic since nobody can definitively prove the non-existence of anything. This is the honest empiricist view.

    Dawkins talks about Bertrand Russell’s supposition of a teapot circling the Sun between Earth and Mars. Can you prove there is no teapot if it is smaller than the most powerful telescope’s resolution? Answer: No.

    While Dawkins admits that he cannot disprove the existence of God, he certainly lives his life as a functional atheist since there is no evidence that a God, like the teapot, affects our existence.

    Sir Anthony should get an Amazon account and buy a book once in a while.

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      In it [TGD] he goes into detail about the various levels of the “theism–agnosticism–atheism” spectrum and calls himself a “6 on the scale of 7″ where 1 is absolute surety God exists and 7 absolute surety God does not exist. He calls himself an agnostic since nobody can definitively prove the non-existence of anything. This is the honest empiricist view.

      It is the endpoints of Dawkins’ scale–both endpoints–that need to be tempered. We need to get past this ridiculous idea that there can be absolute surety about anything.

      And there are important ways that a 1 and a 7 diverge. A perfect 1 should really be the denial that one’s god or gods might not exist, whereas a perfect 7 can’t really be put in the same way given the infinite possible definitions of what could be a deity (see PZ’s rebuttal to Jerry Coyne’s 900-foot tall Jesus proposition). Perhaps a perfect 7 should be an unwillingness to entertain supporting evidence for the existence of a deity beyond sheer annoyance from being pestered too much about it.

  • Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Sir Richard’s

    There is no “Sir” Richard. He hasn’t been knighted. Given his character he’d probably refuse such a stupid “honor.”

    • http://kalamazoopost.blogspot.com Tony61

      It was intended more or less non-literally- as a joke, I admit to being agnostic about Prof. Dawkins’ peerage or social status…but thanks for the clarification.

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs Alan Cooper

    O sancta simplicitas!
    Why *do* philosophers seem to need to discretize everything?
    In which little labelled box do you put an agnostic gnostic whose god is as real as i is?

  • Dave The Sandman

    Im a little extreme in my intolerance for these leather elbow patch teachers rec room pipe smoking word games.

    To me this is very simple: Do you believe in God (or Gods) is a Yes / No question. “Im not sure” is not acceptable. It is as dishonest an answer as saying “Im not sure” when asked about Santa and fairies.

    Agnostics are just fence sitting, and belong in the same respect level box as Deepak Chopra and the rest of the woo woo crowd. Weak links in the days of Santorum and Baroness Warsi we rationalists can ill afford.

    • khms

      a“Im not sure” is not acceptable. It is as dishonest an answer as saying “Im not sure” when asked about Santa and fairies.

      That, my dear, is either a dishonest argument, or a sign of stupidity – take your pick. Certainty is not a boolean quality, unless you’re too stupid. (Ok, or unless we’re talking about pure math.)

      That said, I myself am far enough at the atheistic end that, for this particular question, and for me, it’s indistinguishable from 100% unless one uses a microscope. (But many other questions I’m much more near the middle.)

  • sailor1031

    “..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”

    Unfortunately if the theists are’nt 100% sure they will never admit it so I don’t think this ploy works at all. This is all dependent on what is meant by “god”. We can categorically deny the existence of the pygmy gods wotan, zeus, allah, yahweh, ganesh, rama, hanuman, yama, jizo, glooscap and all the others created by man in his own image. Not so easy to be 100% sure that there isn’t some extra-universal entity somewhere that did a bit of creating billions of years back and has been silent ever since. But it seems so very unlikely that we can be pretty close to 100%……

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      The vast majority of goddists, particularly of the Jesusite flavors, are 100% sure of the existence of their god. There’s a few, like Bishop Spong, who express doubts about God’s existence. However the average, run of the mill, common or garden variety goddist knows as a matter of fact that God exists.

    • sailor1031


    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      That’s not true. Overwhelming numbers claim to have faith, which admits of uncertainty. But either way, it’s fine. If they claim certainty then they lose the leverage they want to say we are too arrogant in feeling confident enough to say there are no gods. They lose the ability to say we claim to know too much about unknowable matters.

  • michaeld

    I’m perfectly fine to use what ever terms fit me in describing myself as long as we are clear on our definitions. Although I don’t use it I think that’s an advantage to the term pearlist in that no one knows what you mean so you get to define it for them. When it comes to atheism and agnosticism I’m definitely in favor of separating belief from knowledge. In the end until we get clear definitions everyone uses I think we all have to be a bit flexible on labels.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    To me, the most offensive thing about this is not the “you’re not an atheist then, you’re an agnostic!” trope — I got over that one I long time ago. Rather, it’s the fact that Dawkins said this exact thing quite explicitly six years ago in his book. NEWS FLASH: Man believes same thing he wrote in (arguably) his most famous a book over half a decade ago.

    • http://kalamazoopost.blogspot.com Tony61


  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

    I have many times encountered theists who believe that certitude is a strength. Ironically, as Dan mentioned, so is faith.

    In the religious mind, faith (when done properly) becomes certainty. Faith becomes evidence. By this account, the only way you can be an atheist is either by having positive evidence for a negative claim or actually turning your epistemology into a religion.

  • http://gplus.to/PhilipThrift Philip Thrift

    He spelled this out in his spectrum [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability#Dawkins.27s_formulation ] saying he’s a 6.9 in [1.0, 7.0] [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fUYUvvJiW0 ] 4 hears ago. Nothing new here, and this is a better language to use to express the range from _belief_ to _unbelief_. _Knowledge_ carries metaphysical corpses best left behind in the graveyard of Platonism.