Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit: Part 3 – Agnosticism as Knowledge

The Reconquista Initiative

Presents…

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit: Part 3 – Agnosticism as Knowledge

In both Part 1 and Part 2 of the previous essay “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Bullshit”, it was argued that so-called lack-of-belief atheism (or negative-atheism) and agnosticism are essentially synonymous; indeed, negative lack-of-belief atheism is really just agnosticism by another name (or is better described as something like ‘ignotheism’ for those who are genuinely ignorant of the question of God’s existence). Now, in response to the claim that lack-of-belief atheism and agnosticism are the same position, some atheists assert that the difference between atheism and agnosticism is that atheism allegedly deals with belief claims whereas agnosticism deals strictly with knowledge claims, thereby implying that a person could be an atheist and an agnostic at the same time without a contradiction necessarily arising. Such critics argue that rather than seeing agnosticism as resting at the mid-point between atheism and theism on the spectrum of theistic belief, agnosticism is actually best understood as resting in a separate category altogether, thus meaning that it does not overlap with atheism. Consider, for example, what Austin Cline, an ‘Agnosticism & Atheism Expert’ at the popular website ‘atheism.about.com’, says in his 7th of September 2016 online article “Atheist vs. Agnostic – What’s the Difference?”, which was accessed on the 28th of February 2017; Cline says the following:

[QUOTE] An atheist is anyone who doesn’t happen to believe in any gods, no matter what their reasons or how they approach the question of whether any gods exist. This is a very simple concept, but it’s also widely misunderstood. For that reason, there are a variety of ways to state this. Atheism is: the lack of belief in gods, the absence of belief in gods, disbelief in gods, not believing in gods.

An agnostic is anyone who doesn’t claim to know for that any gods exist or not, no matter what their reasons or how they approach the question of whether any gods exist.

There’s a simple test to tell if one is an agnostic or not. Do you think you know for sure if any gods exist? If so, then you’re not an agnostic. Do you think you know for sure that gods do not or even cannot exist? If so, then you’re not an agnostic. Everyone who can’t answer “yes” to one of those questions is a person who may or may not believe in one or more gods, but since they don’t also claim to know for sure they are agnostic — an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist.

An agnostic atheist has two qualities: they don’t happen to believe in any gods and they don’t claim to know [f]or sure that no gods can or do exist. 

An agnostic theist has two qualities: they believe in the existence of at least one god and they don’t claim to know for sure that this god or gods definitely exist.

…many people have the mistaken impression that agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive. But why? There’s nothing about “I don’t know” which excludes “I don’t believe.” On the contrary, not only are they compatible but they frequently appear together because not knowing is frequently a reason for not believing. It’s often a very good idea to not accept some proposition is true unless you have enough evidence that would qualify as knowledge. [UNQUOTE, http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutagnosticism/a/Atheist-vs-Agnostic-Difference.htm%5D

And note that this attempt to differentiate atheism from agnosticism in the above manner stems from the fact that the word ‘gnostic’ pertains to the issue of knowledge and of having knowledge, and so an ‘a-gnostic’ is thus be someone who lacks knowledge about something.

Now, as Cline notes, what the above atheistic assertion claims is that when it comes to categorizing the various unbelieving positions that a person could hold, a person could thus join atheism and agnosticism together without contradiction or redundancy. Indeed, a person could thus be an agnostic-atheist; and this would mean—as per Cline—that the person does not happen to believe in any God or gods (hereafter just God) and he does not claim to know that there is no God. But here we run into a problem. Namely, if atheism—as Cline defines it—is just a lack of belief in God, then the term ‘agnostic-atheist’ actually is redundant and trivial. Why? Because to claim to know something necessarily includes having a positive belief about it. Indeed, knowledge is most often defined as a ‘justified true belief’ or a ‘warranted true belief’. Furthermore, even a more commonsensical and common understanding of what knowledge is, namely, a very well-evidenced belief, still includes a positive belief within it. After all, when a criminal is found guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, we believe that the criminal is guilty, but we consider such a belief to be knowledge because it is a very well supported belief; this is why, in common parlance, we rightly say that we know that the criminal is guilty of the crime in question. So the point is that knowledge necessarily includes a component of belief within it. But what this now means is the following: if a person lacks a belief in some proposition, then they necessarily do not know it. Consequently, if atheism is defined as just a lack-of-belief in the existence of God, then there is no point in claiming to also not know that God does not exist, because such a lack of knowledge is necessarily included and implied in the initial lack-of-belief; to lack a belief in something is to lack knowledge of it as well, so there is no reason to say the same thing twice. Indeed, the term ‘agnostic-atheist’ essentially means that you are saying “I have absolutely no positive belief of any type concerning the existence or non-existence of God (lack-of-belief atheism), and I have no justified true belief (knowledge) concerning the existence or non-existence of God either.” Well, obviously, for if you take the former position, then the latter one is automatically included in it, and thus there is no point in being redundant by calling one’s self an agnostic-atheist. And so, the whole push to somehow make lack-of-belief atheism and agnosticism distinct, and thus combinable, becomes yet another shell-game, for it is just a way of saying the same thing twice. Indeed, if atheism is defined as just a lack-of-belief, then agnostic-atheism is a redundant and unnecessary term.

Now, to see this whole problem from a different angle, consider that if the term ‘agnostic-atheist’ were useful or necessary, then the term ‘gnostic-atheist’ should also be useful and necessary. But far from being useful, the term ‘gnostic-atheist’ is incoherent. Indeed, for if atheism is defined as just a lack-of-belief, then no atheist could be a gnostic-atheist. Why? Because the term ‘gnostic’ means to have knowledge, which—as shown above—means to have a positive justified true belief about something (or a warranted true belief), not a lack of belief. But if atheism is just a lack-of-belief, then ‘gnostic-atheism’ is a contradiction, for it is claiming that someone both lacks a belief concerning God’s existence (atheism) while at the same time actually having a positive justified true belief (knowledge: ie – gnosticism) that God does not exist. But no one can lack a belief concerning the question of God’s existence while at the same time positively believing that God does not exist, for to have a positive belief that God does not exist means that you do not lack a belief concerning the question of God’s existence, but rather you positively deny that God exists. And so the term ‘gnostic-atheist’ essentially means that you are saying “I have absolutely no positive belief of any type concerning the existence or non-existence of God (lack-of-belief atheism), and yet I have a justified true positive belief (knowledge) that God does not exist.” Now, obviously, such a position is contradictory, and so it is indeed impossible for someone to be a gnostic-atheist so long as atheism is taken to be a mere lack of belief.

Therefore, when atheism is defined as a lack-of-belief, adding an agnostic or gnostic prefix to the term ‘atheism’ is either redundant or contradictory. Furthermore, note as well that even if the term ‘agnostic-atheism’ was not redundant, it is still just agnosticism by another name. Indeed, for given that the agnostic-atheist allegedly lacks a belief in God and also does not claim to know whether or not God exists, then such a person just is a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God, and such a definition has traditionally been the definition of what an agnostic is, as numerous quotes in the previous essays in this series show. So even the attempt to combine atheism and agnosticism into the term ‘agnostic-atheist’ does nothing to remove the fact that such a position is merely another name for what many people—and many legitimate sources—already define as straight agnosticism.

And so, the long and short of it is this:  if atheism is defined as a lack-of-belief, then the attempt to make agnosticism into something that is distinct from atheism and that can be tacked on to the term ‘atheism’ simply does not work. After all, the term ‘agnosticism-atheism’ is redundant and is still synonymous with just plain old agnosticism, while the term ‘gnostic-atheism’ is contradictory. Thus, this particular attempt to escape the claim that lack-of-belief atheism is essentially just another term for agnosticism fails. Now, if atheism was defined in a positive manner—namely as a positive belief that God does not exist—then separating atheism into gnostic-atheism and agnostic-atheism would work, but whether or not this strategy would allow atheism to avoid the charge of just being another term for agnosticism is a topic for another essay.

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Anno Domini 2017 03 03

Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam

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