I am reposting this article (which I first published a year ago today, originally under a different title) because it covers concepts central to my thinking about atheism, knowledge, and disbelief in God.
Some atheists who are excessively afraid of being like religious people are afraid of saying they believe there are no gods because that’s what religious people do. Supposedly the mistake theists make is having any belief or knowledge claims that are not scientific or that are not certain. So a lot of atheists claim not to believe or, even, know anything that is not scientifically proven or certain.
In an act of massively disproportionate overcorrection these atheists equate all scientifically unproven beliefs with faith beliefs and claim that they refuse any such beliefs. With an incredibly crude (and, frankly silly) theory of knowledge, at the extremes atheists like this talk as though there are only two categories: scientifically proven knowledge and faith. And all mere “beliefs” are faith beliefs. So, on the question of gods, the excessively scrupulous atheist trying to avoid resembling religious people at all costs, by supposedly not having any “beliefs” at all, declares that he does not believe there are no gods. He simply refrains from all belief and defaults to non-belief by merely lacking belief in gods.
We should call people like this “agnostic atheists”. They are atheists because, they lack all belief in gods and don’t live as though there are gods, and so are “without gods” or “atheist”. The adjective “agnostic” here designates that they think the issue of gods is, either in principle or at least for the time being, not a matter for knowledge.
Agnostic atheists tend to assert one of a couple things. Either at present there is no scientific evidence for the existence of gods but it theoretically could come about in the future, so for the time the only rational and properly skeptical thing to do is withhold from believing in gods. As a gesture of their scientific open mindedness, many of them assert that since there could, in principle, be evidence for gods in the future, they do not want to preemptively rule out that possibility by believing there are no gods. They are just holding off on affirming one way or another and for the time being just being atheists i.e., those who lack beliefs in gods and live and think as though there aren’t any.
Other agnostic atheists, who see the question of gods not as one to be answered by science but as a metaphysical sort of one, are closer to Thomas Huxley (who originally) coined the word “agnostic”. They think that all fundamental metaphysical principles, including “God”, are simply unknowable or unintelligible to try to think or talk about. So they refrain from any beliefs about metaphysics, including belief that there is or that there isn’t a God since such beliefs would be baseless presumption. So, again, like the more scientifically arguing agnostic atheist, they default to non-belief in gods that makes no knowledge claims about the matter; i.e. agnostic atheism.
A third kind of agnostic atheist could be like either of the other two. She reasons that “God” is so poorly defined a concept, whether scientifically or metaphysically, as to be incapable of being clearly assessed and amounts to a kind of incomprehensible nonsense. It might be incomprehensible because the concept has no specifiable verifiable or falsifiable features, or because it is riddled with apparent contradictions or because what people mean when they refer to it is always so vague and amorphous. Such an agnostic sometimes claims to be open to scientifically, or maybe even metaphysically, thinking about the concept if it can ever be coherently formulated. But for the time being, they think it hasn’t been and so they lack any beliefs for or against God because there is nothing clear enough to either affirm belief in or affirm disbelief in at present.
While I think these views are off the mark overcorrections driven by an excessive reaction against the non-scientific character of religious beliefs, I think they’re impressively sophisticated stances motivated by a fair amount of (misguided) scrupulousness.
The problem with these insistences on only having non-belief in matters of gods and metaphysics is that it is absurd and unlivable to only affirm “proven science” as knowledge and never affirm any beliefs that are the slightest bit uncertain. This fails, right off the bat, for a reason atheists know very well: science itself is never certain. It is just, at its best, rationally justified to a very high degree that merits the designation of knowledge.
So, when I hear atheists say (and they do) that they are 99.99999% sure there is no God but they can’t rule it out so they only lack belief, I have to chuckle. If 99.99999% certainty is not cause for a knowledge claim but only cause to refrain from beliefs, then there can be no scientific knowledge either. And all affirmations of knowledge in science, because of whatever tiny margins of error, are dreaded belief claims! And if all belief claims are tantamount to wholly specious, arbitrary faith claims, then oh no! All beliefs generated by science are just as bad as religious faith beliefs!
And, further, the vast majority of our perfectly good knowledge beliefs are not scientific in character. Our knowledge of mathematical truths is even more certain than scientific beliefs and it is not empirically derived. We also have knowledge of an enormous amount of “unscientific” knowledge that comes through our senses, our memories, and ordinary every day inferences that have nothing to do whatsoever with rigorous scientific methodology.
I know for a fact that right now I am sitting on my bed. This has not been confirmed by any scientific journals but it’s true! It is not even a scientific kind of belief. It’s not one that relates to general patterns in nature, which are the province of science to investigate. If the enormous raft of everyday beliefs we have are “not knowledge” then science itself would be sunk since all those carefully constructed experiments require people’s sense beliefs, memories, mathematical skills, and basic ordinary inferences in order even to generate the sophisticated kind of data that affords more precise and tested inferences worthy of being called “scientific”.
We can also have knowledge that is not even a matter of abstract beliefs but an implicit familiarity and practice at doing something, a “know-how” that is involved in skills and crafts and an enormous number of everyday behaviors, even where the most skilled at them could hardly give a theoretical account of what their minds and bodies implicitly know about what to do.
Finally we can have knowledge related to formal conceptual distinctions and logical relationships between formal concepts (sometimes independent of empirical observations). We can, for example, grasp logical relationships about things that are not scientifically shown to be the case but would theoretically could be or would have been under different circumstances. We can know the implications of abstract conceptual models without always knowing if those models fit reality. We can think about many philosophical concepts with at least some degree of knowledge. We can even, I would argue, have various kinds of moral knowledge. But there’s no room (or need) to prove that last point here. The other kinds of knowledge will suffice.
Now the huge raft of beliefs we have that don’t have scientific precision are not all simply “faith”. They’re certainly not “lacks of beliefs”. When I say I’m sitting on my bed, I don’t technically mean, “I lack belief that I’m not sitting on my bed”. And I don’t mean, “I have faith that I’m sitting on my bed”. I mean “I know I’m sitting on my bed”. Now, I could be wrong. I could be dreaming, hallucinating, in a matrix, etc., etc. It’s not infallible knowledge. But not all knowledge has to be infallible.
Contemporary epistemologists generally agree on what is called “externalism” and what is called “reliablism”. A belief can count as knowledge if it was formed through a reliable belief forming mechanism and if it is true in the world. So, all the beliefs we form through reliable means and for which we carefully apportion our strength and degree of belief to the strength and degree of the evidence, we should call knowledge.
“But!” the objection is raised, “Sometimes you will only think you’ll know but you won’t actually! Your belief will really be false!” Yes. That’s true. Say out of every 1000 of my beliefs 1 is false. (Which actually sounds like a high false rate to me, considering the enormous volume of reliable sense perception based beliefs that I have simply by taking a glance at my room!) So, yes, when I claim to know those 1,000 things are true, I am wrong in one instance. So what? I am not infallible. In the 999/1000 times I claim I have knowledge, I am right. The world really is (essentially enough) the way I think it is for all practical purposes.
Why should I undercut that and just because sometimes I am wrong conflate all my beliefs that are even a tiny degree uncertain with faith beliefs? Paradigmatic faith beliefs are not just “uncertain” and “non-scientific”. They’re immensely unlikely and irrational! Yes, when I think I’m sitting on my bed, I could be wrong. But when someone says a cracker’s essence turns into that of a Middle Eastern godman who died two thousand years ago, they are nearly certainly wrong. Those two affirmations are not just “both faith beliefs” for not being “certain” or “scientific”. The belief I’m sitting on my bed is grounded in the evidence brought to me by reliable belief forming processes. The belief in the godman cracker flies in the teeth of all evidence and has no basis in reality.
So the problem is not that “only scientifically proven things can be known” and everything else is just beliefs and that we should all scrupulously “not believe” what is not scientifically shown and not certain. The problem with faith beliefs is that they result from willful commitments to disregard evidence and believe more strongly and/or to a greater degree than evidence warrants.
But we can believe lots of things that are uncertain, so long as we are careful to only believe to the degree, and with the strength, that our most scrupulous reasoning tools merit. Weighing evidence, being careful in our conceptual distinctions, being logically rigorous, taking into account the deliverances of well-developed and tested scientific frameworks, etc., we can affirm that we tentatively believe some things, say, with a rough estimate of 60% confidence that makes it worth proceeding with cautious inferences that guide our lives as though it were true but taking care that there is still a 40% chance it might not be. That’s perfectly rational. It’s not believing by faith. Believing by faith would be saying, “What’s that? A 1% chance? Let me commit 100% to that!”
And given the extraordinary failure of supernatural entities to show themselves in the world under modern conditions for verifying and falsifying beliefs, the likelihood of supernatural entities actually existing is extremely low. Well well below 1%. With hundreds of millions of people walking around with camera phones now we still have no photographic evidence or films of supernatural agencies that are not laughably easy to debunk? Double blind tests have been done on prayer. It doesn’t work. Etc., etc. And now that we have seen the power of naturalistic explanations to make astounding counter-intuitive but true predictions about the world, we have every reason to think that the only agencies in the world are natural ones that adhere to the seemingly binding natural laws of the universe.
SO, in that context, I feel quite confident in saying that I believe there are no personal gods intervening in the world. Better yet, the degree of evidence is so overwhelming against the gods hypothesis, that I have no hesitation in saying I know there are no gods. Just as everyone readily says there is no Aquaman and nearly every contemporary person says there is no Zeus, it should be just as easy for everyone (and especially atheists) to say there the God of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition simply doesn’t exist. It is only cultural conditioning that makes people hesitate and treat that as a harder question than those of Zeus and Aquaman when, evidence-wise, it’s plainly not. Well, cultural conditioning, and this irrational fear that if they disbelieve in God they’ll somehow be just as much a faith-believer as believers in God. Which is bunk.
Finally, the other reason atheists might hesitate to say they know there is no God is because of a long standing, deeply confusing, and insidious equivocation the major monotheisms have foisted on us for centuries. They conflate the metaphysical concept of a “ground of all being” principle with the personal, interventionist gods of their religious traditions. Now a metaphysical principle that explains why everything exists might be intelligible and defensible and so I am agnostic about that. But even if such a thing exists, it is incoherent to think of it as a personal being given everything we have ever experienced about personality, which shows it clearly to be a spatio-temporal experience of complex organisms and not at all the kind of thing that can exist outside of space and time. In fact the problems with talking about God as personal were known all the way back to the ancients and have always been known and acknowledged by the most sophisticated theistic philosophers, even as the latter have engaged in all sorts of unconvincing ad hoc explanations about how the impersonal god of philosophy can somehow be reconciled with their faith traditions’ baseless and anthropomorphic beliefs about gods who act in history.
It’s as absurd to say that the “ground of all being”, if it is an intelligible thing at all, is personal as it is to say “gravity” is personal. It’s sheer confusion. And an impersonal ground of all being is so profoundly irrelevant to all the things that people want from a “god” that if that’s all you mean by the kind of “God” that could exist, and if you know a personal God can’t? You essentially are an atheist who knows there is no God of the only socially relevant kind.
So just join me already in calling yourself a gnostic atheist, an atheist who knows there is no God.
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