Agnosticism: the basis for Atheism, not an alternative to it
An old question recently led me to a new thought: can an Agnostic be a Theist? The easy answer appears to be yes, because there are people who call themselves Agnostics and Theists. As we will see below, we cannot leave that claim unchallenged. But a second question emerges from this line of thought: can an Agnostic be an Atheist? In other words, what is the relationship between Agnosticism, Theism, and Atheism? Is Agnosticism a third, intermediate, alternative position, or is it something else?
This general issue was raised in these pages by Tony Pasquarello, who distinguished between Atheism and what he called Natheism (as if we need another neologism!), the former being the good old dictionary-definition version of belief that there is no such thing as god(s) and the latter being a “new” position of rejecting belief without rejecting god(s) (1). This second position, which is sometimes called “weak” or “negative” Atheism, I also find incoherent, as I have argued in a previous article (2). What could it possibly mean to say that I don’t believe in X but I am not maintaining there is no X? That is why I concluded that all Atheism is positive Atheism–we do not believe in X because we maintain there is no X.
What does all of this have to do with Agnosticism? Everything, as it turns out. Atheists who dilute their Atheism into Agnosticism are not only doing the cause and philosophy of Atheism a disservice, but they are also committing a crucial conceptual error–and allowing others to commit it too. The error is the assertion that “Agnostic” is some third thing to be, an alternative to both belief and non-belief, and in fact a milder and more acceptable alternative to belief than Atheism. Agnostics are supposedly people who claim to be “undecided” about religious questions or possibly uninterested in them. They are “not sure” or noncommittal, they do not have “enough information,” and hypothetically they are waiting, actively or passively, for some basis on which to settle the two “claims” of Theism and Atheism. Agnostics–persons who declare themselves to be Agnostics–allegedly say “I don’t know.”
However, this will not do. First, Agnosticism is not an alternative position to Atheism, because Agnosticism and Atheism are completely different kinds of phenomena, not simply different positions on the same continuum. Agnosticism is in fact not a position at all but a method for arriving at a position. It is not on the belief spectrum in any sense. Second, Agnosticism is the only proper approach to the particular problem it addresses–the problem of knowledge–and as such it is not only compatible with Atheism but is actually a foundation, the essential foundation, for Atheism.
What is Agnosticism?
Agnosticism is a recent concept, introduced by Thomas Huxley, the famous friend and advocate of Darwin, to describe his own concerns about knowledge and belief. It is derived from the Greek roots a- for ‘no’ or ‘without’ and gnosis for ‘knowledge.’ Dictionary definitions, which are often worse than useless, tend to depict it as the position that certain things, like god(s), are unknown or ultimately unknowable; in common usage it is a third religious position between Atheism or Theism. The Oxford World Encyclopedia goes so far as to declare that it is a “reasoned basis for the rejection of both Christianity and Atheism” (3).
However, neither dictionaries nor common usage reflect Huxley’s intent in coining the term. His original formulation of the concept goes as follows:
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies
in the vigorous application of a single principle. Positively the
principle may be expressed as, in matters of the intellect, follow
your reason as far as it can carry you without other considerations.
And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend the
conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It
is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a
proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies
In this characterization, which we can take as authoritative, there is no mention of belief in general or of religion in particular. Rather, it addresses what we should and can claim to know. It is akin to skepticism in the less extreme sense: not that it is impossible to have knowledge or that we have none but that we should not claim to have knowledge that we do not have.
Agnosticism, then, is not a branch of religion but of epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge: what is it possible to say that we know with some acceptable degree of certainty, and how do we know that we know it? More accurately, it is a method in regard to knowledge, a method for separating out what we can justifiably say we know from what we cannot justifiably say we know. It is certainly not a body of particular knowledge, nor is it a position to take on any particular issue. It is the process by which to arrive at such knowledge on which to base one’s position. In this sense, it is entirely consistent with–in fact, it is virtually the same thing as–reason. It is the demand for true facts and valid logic as the grounds for one’s sound conclusions. In the absence of true facts and valid logic, one cannot call one’s conclusions sound and should be at least cautious if not self-critical about them.
Applied to religion, Agnosticism means that we should not claim to have ‘religious knowledge’ unless we can demonstrate by our ‘agnostic method’ that such knowledge is justified. It does not insist prima facie that religious knowledge is impossible, only that it must pass this test. The question then is whether anything that we can seriously call religious knowledge does or can pass the agnostic test. Can we claim to have sound, even true, religious knowledge? I would argue that we do not and most likely cannot have it.
What exactly is religious knowledge? It would be propositions about religious topics–in particular, the existence and nature of god(s)–that are accepted as true on the basis of evidence and/or interpretation of evidence, with the requirement that such evidence and interpretation lead soundly to the propositions. Such knowledge seems astronomically unlikely and logically impossible. The myriad of beliefs about god(s), contradictory and mutually exclusive as they are, makes it just short of inconceivable that one of them could be the ‘true knowledge’ of god(s) while all the others have it wrong. Furthermore, there is no way imaginable that we could ever determine which was the true knowledge and which was teaching false gods. There is no criterion for judging the truth or justification of a religious claim other than one that is itself part of the very religious system. For example, Christians sometimes argue the veracity of their religion on the grounds of biblical prophecy or the special nature of Jesus. However, if you do not accept the authority of the Bible or see its prophecies as fulfilled, or if you do not accept the divinity–or the very existence–of Jesus, then this argument is moot.
There are two ‘agnostic problems’ with any claims to possessing religious knowledge. The first is the possible source of such knowledge. There are, in the end, only two potential sources of religious knowledge–authority and personal experience. In other words, if I know something about god(s), I either learned it from someone or I experienced it directly. If I got it from an authority, where could my religious authority have gotten it? Either from a prior authority or directly from experience. And where could his prior authority have gotten it? Either from an even more prior authority or directly from his experience. We can therefore distinguish the regression of authorities passing ‘knowledge’ on from one to the other, without any means of verifying the truth of the information. Authority, then, amounts to little more than hearsay and testimony, and we can reject it out of court as a source of knowledge, as a way to certify that our knowledge is sound. In fact, the appeal to authority or to tradition is a well-known logical fallacy.
That only leaves personal experience as a source of religious knowledge. This is perhaps the fountain of all things religious and the last refuge from rationalistic criticism. If I had a personal experience, how can you argue with that? Well, there are a number of ways to argue with that. The first is that, in all fields except religion, personal experience is not accepted as a dependable source of knowledge. If a prosecutor brought a psychic into court who said that she had had a personal vision of the defendant committing a crime, both would be (rightly) laughed out of the building. Second, since this experience is subjective or “internal,” there is no possible means of verification–I cannot even be sure that you had the experience, let alone that you had the experience you think you had or that it refers to anything in external reality. Third and perhaps most importantly, experiences are subject to interpretation and the vagaries of memory. An individual who has a ‘spiritual experience’ (whatever that is; see my earlier article on spirituality) (4) might interpret it as the Christian God in one time or culture, as nirvana in another, as a ‘good trip’ in another, and as a hallucination in yet another. In other words, even if the experience is real, the object or referent of the experience is questionable and ultimately not known. But if this is the case, then personal experience cannot be a source of religious knowledge either. Predictably, the appeal to personal experience is another well-known logical fallacy.
This is at least partly because it faces the second problem with religious knowledge–that it does not conform to the rules of evidence and logic. Even if we might, for argument’s sake, accept a personal religious experience or an authority’s testimony as evidence for the existence of some god, this evidence still fails to satisfy the conditions of falsifiability, comprehensiveness, honesty, replicability, and sufficiency on which sound knowledge depends. For instance, why do we accept that authority rather than some other? Why do we accept this person’s experience instead of that person’s? Also, there is no way we can test them, either for accuracy or for actuality; we cannot verify that you had any experience at all, let alone the one you claim. This is, of course, the main charm of personal experience for Theists, since it is unimpeachable by science or reason. However, no one–not even a Theist–lives his whole life this way, taking for granted and acting on somebody else’s subjective claims; if someone said, “I had a vision that chocolate bars cure cancer,” or even, “My alternative healer said that chocolate bars cure cancer,” you would be a fool to stop your medical treatment and go on a regimen of candy. Precisely because personal experience and ancient authority are so unapproachable for purposes of testing and falsifiability, they are untrustworthy as evidence. Agnosticism–that is, reason–rejects them.
You Don’t Know–But Do You Believe?
We may safely conclude, then, that there is no ‘religious knowledge’ that we Atheists are lacking. In fact, even Theists themselves typically emphasize belief (faith) over knowledge; especially Christians, but all Theists to an extent, devalue knowledge as a way of approaching spirituality and privilege ‘faith’ instead. Undoubtedly, many Theists think that knowledge is possible and good, and some have tried to reconcile faith and reason, but in the end, reason takes a back seat to faith. As Tertullian, an early church father, stated clearly, Christianity is true because it is absurd–because there is no evidence for it and nothing else like it in human experience.
We humans are, therefore, all without religious knowledge. In other words, in the realm of religion, we are all a-gnosis. People who claim to have some gnosis, like the famous and appropriately named Gnostics, essentially must maintain that they know what everyone else does not and cannot know; yet, their claims to gnosis have no substance and need not bother us.
Let us state then simply and firmly that all of us are, in the conventional sense, Agnostics, since we are all without knowledge when it comes to religion. We might think we have some, and we might have learned some teachings about religion, but this does not and cannot qualify as knowledge. In Huxley’s original sense, we might not all be Agnostics, but we all should be; we should practice Agnosticism and refrain from making claims to knowledge that we are not justified in making. But if religious claims–like claims about the existence of god(s)–fail inspection, doesn’t that mean that we should reject them?
Yes, it does. Let us look at it this way: the question for us is, does a god with these or those particular qualities exist? There are only two possible answers: yes or no. How do we begin to approach the problem? We begin to approach the problem with a method, in this case the Agnostic method: we collect information, we make observations, we subject it all to careful logical analysis, and we do not accept an affirmative answer until there is sufficient reason to do so. In the meantime, we adopt the ‘null hypothesis’ (as scientists say), the innocent-until-provenguilty stance (as jurists say), or, in this particular instance, the “presumption of Atheism” (as Antony Flew says).
Thus, there are only two possible outcomes to our investigation–yes this god exists, or no this god does not exist. The first is (one of the many types of) Theism, and the second is Atheism. These two positions represent the poles of the spectrum of belief. In fact they are the only two points on that spectrum. Either you believe in god(s) and are a Theist, or you do not believe in god(s) and are an Atheist. So Agnosticism does not and cannot belong on this spectrum, let alone ‘in between’ the theistic and atheistic points.
It is now apparent that Agnosticism is in a different dimension (the methodological dimension) than both Atheism and Theism. Atheism and Theism are positions, but Agnosticism is a process. In what dimension do Atheism and Theism dwell? The most common answer would be the dimension of ‘belief.’ Now we are back on familiar ground. Theism is the belief (or one of the many beliefs) in god(s), and Atheism is the belief in no god(s). However, as I have argued elsewhere and will continue to argue, this is wrong: Atheism is not a “belief” at all. Theism is a belief in the sense that you must stand your theistic ground–must make the claim of the truth of your ‘religious knowledge’–without the aid of solid evidence or logic; it is accepting something as true without confirming evidence or even in the face of disconfirming evidence. It is acceptance of a knowledge claim in disregard or contradiction to the ‘agnostic method.’ Atheism, conversely, is the (sound) conclusion that any such knowledge claim is false, completely and necessarily in compliance with the agnostic method. As I have stressed before, when there is firm evidence, valid logic, and sound conclusion, there is knowledge–and no need to appeal or refer to belief whatsoever. (5)
If Atheism is not a belief, then what is it? And if it is not a belief, what does it have in common with Theism that it does not have in common with Agnosticism; that is, what is the correct spectrum on which Atheism and Theism fall? Pasquarello, in the article cited above, refers to it as “metaphysical,” referring to that other branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and composition of reality. Metaphysics is distinct from, although significantly related to, epistemology, so the Theism/Atheism schism is distinct from, although significantly related to, Agnosticism. However–and this is the theme of the entire present article–they are not related in the sense that most people think.
Name your god. He/she/it either exists or not. Call it a metaphysical question if you like. In the final analysis it is an empirical question: the fact is either the god does or does not exist. There is no third alternative. We may not easily be able to know which, but it is one of the two. How is the empirical question to be solved? The only possible answer is with the correct method; here, empirical truth and methodology meet. In other words, here Atheism and Agnosticism meet. In other words, here belief and knowledge meet.
What ultimately is the relation between the two dimensions–between Agnosticism and Atheism/ Theism, between method and fact, between metaphysics and epistemology, between belief and knowledge? The answer is clear. If you have no knowledge of a thing, if your methods yield no knowledge of it–not of its existence, not of its characteristics–then how could you justifiably ever believe anything about it? You cannot. If you do not know, you should not believe. Your only sensible option is to reject the knowledge claim and to eschew any belief on the subject. Your only sensible option is Atheism.
Therefore, if Agnosticism is the method pertaining to religious knowledge, then the only valid conclusion from that method is Atheism. There is, then, a natural and unavoidable connection between the two concepts. If Agnosticism is the process, Atheism is the product. I am an Atheist because I am an Agnostic. I have reached the conclusion of Atheism because I have traveled the only road there is and arrived at the only point to which that road leads. Of course, not all people practice Agnosticism–certainly not in their religious lives–and not all, obviously, recognize their inevitable state as Agnostics. Those who do practice it conspicuously must inevitably concede that there is no foundation whatsoever for making any religious claims that have any reality to them. People may, do, and probably will continue to believe in the absence of evidence or in contradiction to the evidence, but that is now the only way that they can believe. Belief as a respectable and rational position has been vanquished. Theism is defeated, and only Atheism remains.
There is one last problem to dispatch. Theists, and Agnostics in the conventional sense, will often dismiss Atheism as if it implies or requires certain knowledge that god(s) does/do not exist–as if we are claiming to ‘know’ that there is/are no god(s). But that is a false characterization, and this is now patently obvious from an ‘agnostic perspective’. Atheism is not and does not have to be about certainty; rather, in a funny way, it is about the lack of certainty. As Huxley put it, “do not pretend the conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” Therefore, if a Theist cannot demonstrate the existence of god(s)–or even worse, argues that such existence is undemonstrable–we are right to reject the conclusion. We don’t know; they pretend to know. So Atheism does not depend on certain knowledge of the non-existence of god(s). It depends on the non-existence of certain knowledge of god(s).
To Believe or Not to Believe, That Is the Question
There may still be those who call themselves “Agnostics” as if that names their position or frees them from the necessity of taking a position. But Agnosticism does not invite you to suspend judgment; it invites you to reach judgment in full light of the facts and the logic and to stand by it. And, as the old adage goes, if you don’t take a position, then you are taking a position–a position against. If you are not actively a Theist, you are passively an Atheist. If you are waiting to believe, you are not believing now. God, if he/she/it exists, will not make the distinction.
My conclusion is that everyone is agnostic or at least should be; Agnosticism, like reason, is the only trustworthy method for threshing the true from the false. In reality, Agnosticism is simply another name for reason–and probably an unfortunate name, since people are led to think that it is a unique process in its own right or, even worse, a unique thing or conclusion in its own right. But one would not say “I’m rational” as the description of one’s position; that does not tell us what you think, only how you think. Agnosticism is not an alternative to Atheism, let alone a compromise between Atheism and Theism, but rather the very foundation upon which reasoned Atheism stands. Perhaps we should only talk about Agnosticism in the active, verb form: not that I am an Agnostic but that I ‘agnosticize.’ Thus, I agnosticize, therefore I am an Atheist.
Why do even so many Atheists continue to represent and defend Agnosticism as a ‘middle way’ on religion? I would hope that it is from not having thoroughly pondered the meaning of Agnosticism and of Atheism, from a lack of understanding of the difference between methodology and outcome, between process and product, between epistemology and metaphysics. This article is meant to contribute to the clarification of these issues and to make Atheists stronger and clearer advocates for their own position. I fear, at the same time, that the confusion may be intentional–a tactical move to make non-belief more palatable to the pious public. It is more acceptable to be “an Agnostic” than “an Atheist,” since it appears not to refute belief but simply not to share it (“Oh, I don’t say you are wrong, I just don’t join you in it”). While I understand the appeal of public palatability, if we must misrepresent ourselves and muddy our thinking in the process, then we are betraying our true convictions and crippling our own ability to think. It is not only false but false to ourselves. Ultimately, it even aids Theism by making the existence of god(s) implicit and default: if Agnosticism is the position that god(s) is/are unknown or unknowable, that presupposes that there is such a thing as god(s) beyond knowledge. Operating on that definition cedes the ground to Theists.
Finally we can return to the question we posed at the top of this article: whether it is possible to be an agnostic Theist, for example an agnostic Christian. The answer, after further inspection, is no. If there is no religious knowledge that we can claim with any certainty, then there is no ground for belief and Theism. An agnostic Theist is a Theist in violation of Agnosticism. A reasonable Theist is a Theist in violation of reason. It should be immanently clear that there is no agnostic path to Theism. Agnosticism is a path indeed–the only viable and reliable path–through the thicket of theistic claims, but its necessary and inevitable destination is Atheism.
1 Pasquarello, Tony. “Atheism and Natheism.” American Atheist, Fall 2003, 19-24.
2 Eller, David. “Atheism, Positive and Negative.” American Atheist, Autumn 2002, 42-4.
3 Humphries, Christian, ed. The World Encyclopedia. NY: Oxford University Press, 2001, 11.
4 Eller, David. “Why I am not Spiritual: Spirituality as the Alienation of Humanity.” American Atheist, Winter 2003, 12-5.
5 Eller, David. “Belief and Knowledge: A Conceptual Analysis.” American Atheist, Summer 2001, 47-9.
Dr. Eller is an anthropologist as well as American Atheists Director for Colorado. He is the author of Natural Atheism, a book which will be published by American Atheist press later this year. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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