How NOT to Argue for Agnosticism

How NOT to Argue for Agnosticism June 20, 2017

I recently purchased a couple of introductory books on the philosophy of religion.  One of the books is by a contemporary analytic philosopher of religion, Richard M. Gale, titled: On The Philosophy Of Religion (Thompson Wadsworth, 2007).  The other is by a philosopher named Gary Cox, who is not a specialist in philosophy of religion: The God Confusion (Bloomsbury, 2013; hereafter: TGC)  Gary Cox is a British philosopher who appears to be primarily interested in Sartre and existentialism.

Gale’s book is aimed at undergraduate philosophy students, but it jumps right into contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, so although I find the book very interesting, there are passages that are not exactly “user friendly”,  for example, in the first chapter Gale explores some of the details of contemporary objections and replies about divine omniscience:

There are two other responses that also seem to require too little of God’s omniscience.  That it rains (tenselessly) at t4 reports one and the same event as does that it is raining now; for given that now = t4,  its raining now is one and the same event as its raining at t4.  Therefore, God knows of “its raining now” only under that description but not under the description “its raining at t4.”  But an omniscient being must not just know of the occurrence of every event but know of it under every description that is true of it, that is, he must know every proposition that truly reports the occurrence of the event.  (On The Philosophy of Religion, p.14)

There are many passages even in this first chapter that are as challenging, or more challenging, to read and follow.

Gary Cox’s book is an easier read, and it usually avoids the technical details of contemporary analytic philosophy of religion.  In Chapter 3, “The Existence of God”,  Cox does a good job of laying out the main traditional arguments for the existence of God, and he shows that there are serious problems with each of those arguments.  Cox provides a little bit of history of philosophy, and clearly presents the traditional objections to the traditional arguments for God: Anselm’s ontological argument, Aquinas’ cosmological arguments, teleological arguments by Aquinas and Paley, and Kant’s moral argument.  Chapter 3 presents a readable and informative introduction to philosophy of religion in about 100 pages.

However, Gary Cox also gives one of the lousiest arguments for agnosticism that I  have seen.  He argues that agnosticism is the only reasonable position on the question of the existence of God: “…agnosticism is the only tenable philosophical position…” (TGC, p.3).  Cox claims that his book

…simply explores in an objective and unbiased way what philosophers have said over the centuries about the idea and nature of God, his relationship to the world and his existence or non-existence. (TGC, p.3)

Cox commits a blatant Straw Man fallacy against both theism and atheism in an effort to make agnosticism appear to be the only reasonable point of view:

As for atheism, to be an outright atheist is to assert that one knows for sure there is no God.  But I am pretty sure that nobody knows this for sure.  As I tried to show in How to Be a Philosopher, philosophy reveals that there is very little if anything that we can know for absolute certain…

I have always argued that it is my scepticism that prevents me from being an atheist, from committing myself to such a strong position of certainty. …(TGC, p.5)

In the above passage Cox defines atheism this way:

DEFINITION OF “ATHEIST” (by Gary Cox)

Person P is an atheist IF AND ONLY IF person P claims to know for an absolute certainty that there is no God.

Cox implies that the word “theist” should be understood in a similar way:

Even in our scientific age there are still millions of people who claim to know for certain that God exists. (TGC, p.54)

Although Cox is correct that there are millions of such dogmatic theists, he fails to note that there are ALSO millions of theists who are NOT so dogmatic.  According to a survey by Pew Research Center, 63% of adults in the USA claim to be “absolutely certain” that God exists, but 26% of adults in the USA claim to believe in God, but to be less than “absolutely certain” that God exists (20% claim to be only “fairly certain”, 5% claim to be “not too certain” or “not at all certain” that God exists, and 1% claim to believe in God but “don’t know” that God exists).  http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/belief-in-god/

In 2014, when this survey was taken, the U.S. adult population was 244.8 million, so that means that about 154.2 million adults in the U.S. claimed to be “absolutely certain” that God exists, while 63.6 million adults in the U.S. claimed to believe in God, but to be less than “absolutely certain” that God exists.  Therefore, millions of Americans believe in God, but do NOT claim to be “absolutely certain” that God exists.

According to a survey by Pew Research Center, 76% of Christians in the USA claim to be “absolutely certain” that God exists, but 22% of Christians in the USA claim to believe in God, but to be less than “absolutely certain” that God exists (18% claim to be only “fairly certain”, 3% claim to be “not too certain” or “not at all certain” that God exists, and 1% claim to believe in God but “don’t know” that God exists).  So, even among Christian believers in the U.S., there are millions who believe in God, but do not claim to be “absolutely certain” that God exists.   http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/christians/christian/#belief-in-god

Because there are millions of American adults who believe in God, but who are not dogmatic about this belief, it is blatantly unfair for Gary Cox to imply that to be a theist or believer in God MEANS that one is a dogmatic believer in God who claims to be “absolutely certain” that God exists.  This is a blatant and obvious Straw Man fallacy.  Cox dismisses theism by suggesting that in order to believe in God, one must take the extreme position that one knows for an absolute certainty that God exists.

Cox dismisses atheism by the very same unfair and idiotic use the of Straw Man fallacy.  For example, he distorts the viewpoint of Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists”:

A number of high-profile evangelical atheists…are belligerently spreading the New Atheist gospel that God definitely does not exist, and that any suggestion that he might exist is utterly ridiculous. 

The problem with atheism, philosophically speaking, is that it is a very strong belief position, no less strong than theism.  It claims to know beyond all possible doubt that God does not exist.  But as philosophers who understand that there are strict limits to knowledge have long argued, it is not even possible to know beyond all doubt that the external world does or does not exist.  Now, if I cannot even prove or disprove the existence of the desk I seem to clearly see and feel before me, then how on earth can I hope to utterly prove or disprove the existence of a supreme transcendental being?  (TGC, p.56)

Although there is very little of philosophical value in Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion (which was apparently the inspiration for the title of Gary Cox’s book), one important point that Dawkins correctly emphasizes is that both theism and atheism come in different degrees.

There are absolutely certain theists, and absolutely certain atheists, but there are also theists who believe that the existence of God is nearly but not completely certain, and atheists who believe that the non-existence of God is nearly but not absolutely certain, and there are theists who believe that the existence of God is very probable but not nearly certain, and atheists who have a similar belief about the non-existence of God, etc.  If Cox had bothered to read The God Delusion, then he would have learned that his definition of “atheist” and his definition of “theist” are clearly unfair and unreasonable (see pages 50-51 of The God Delusion).

Dawkins himself does NOT claim to be “absolutely certain” that God does not exist:

That you cannot prove God’s non-existence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything.  What matters is not whether God is disprovable, but whether his existence is probable. (The God Delusion, p.54)

So, Gary Cox, if he had bothered to read The God Delusion, would have learned that his extreme definition of “atheist” does NOT apply even to the leading “evangelical atheist”.  That reduces his definition to absurdity.  If not even Dawkins is categorized as an “atheist” according to Cox’s definition, then that definition is clearly a piece of crap (i.e. it is SPODS, a Steaming Pile Of Dog Shit).

But even if Dawkins, contrary to fact, was a dogmatic atheist who claimed to know for an absolute certainty that there is no God, that would still fail to provide anything near sufficient evidence in support of Cox’s idiotic definition of “atheist”.  One can no more define “theist” by the beliefs of Pat Robertson, than one can define “atheist” by the beliefs of Richard Dawkins.  The views of one particularly vocal “evangelical atheist” do not form the basis for an accurate definition of the word “atheist”; this is NOT how to accurately characterize the views of millions of atheists.

Here is Cox’s argument, in summary form:

1. Atheism is the belief that the non-existence of God is known with absolute certainty.

2. Theism is the belief that the existence of God is known with absolute certainty.

3. Agnosticism is the belief that the existence of God is NOT known with absolute certainty and that the non-existence of God is also NOT known with absolute certainty.

4. Atheism, theism, and agnosticism are the only three intellectual options concerning the existence of God.

5. Nothing can be known with absolute certainty.

THEREFORE:

6. Agnosticism is the ONLY reasonable intellectual option concerning the existence of God.

Given Cox’s idiotic definitions of “atheist” and “theist” and his definition of “agnosticism”, he can infer his desired conclusion.  But based on these definitions, there are millions of  American adults who believe in God, but who are NOT theists and who are instead “agnostics”.  And based on Cox’s idiotic definitions,  Richard Dawkins is NOT an atheist, but is just another agnostic.  And based on Cox’s definitions, most people who reject or deny the belief that God exists are NOT atheists but are simply agnostics.

These definitions are obviously false and distorted definitions, adopted merely to portray the alternatives to agnosticism as stupid and obviously false points of view.  But the fact of the matter is that millions of believers in God are NOT dogmatic theists who claim that it is “absolutely certain” that God exists, and there are many people who reject the belief that God exists and who believe that there is no God, who are NOT dogmatic atheists who claim to be absolutely certain that there is no God.  Cox is guilty of an obvious and idiotic use of the Straw Man fallacy in his argument for agnosticism.

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