Monday, January 14, 2013

Agnosticism Vs. Atheism Part 2: Levels of Disbelief

Over a year ago I wrote a post differentiating the agnostic and atheistic positions. I said that in the absence of empirical proof of the existence of god, the evidence for and against god is weighed. The agnostic thinks the evidence about even, and the atheist thinks it's weighted in favor of there being no god. But I recently thought about a recent post of mine regarding Christopher Hitchens' definition of atheism, and so I decided to create a scale with nine levels of belief and disbelief in god ranging from strong atheism, to strong theism.

On my scale shown above, the moderate atheist can stop short of saying "There are no gods," but can say "There almost certainly are no gods. I therefore don't believe in any gods." In other words, given the weak evidence for god, and the powerful explanatory power of science, moderate atheism can affirm a warranted belief in the ability of science to naturally explain the existence of everything in the universe, including the universe itself, without the need for a deity.

Imagine this question posed to a non-believer: Are you an atheist that asserts the proposition that god does not exist, or do you simply withhold belief in god in the way the agnostic does?

This is an interesting question because it seems to accuse the moderate or weak atheist of really just being an agnostic. Does an atheist have to confidently assert that god does not exist? To me really anyone who falls short of at least saying "I believe in god" is an atheist. Since the agnostic doesn't actively believe in god, he or she is technically an atheist.

But let me answer this question using an analogy. Imagine a friend told you they saw Bigfoot outside their bedroom window the other night. Your immediate reaction would probably be disbelief, despite your friend insisting he saw Bigfoot. Most of us, including myself, would require some good evidence to prove that Bigfoot was really lurking outside your friend's bedroom. And in the absence of such evidence, you could rationally conclude that there was no Bigfoot, and that your friend either is lying, saw something that wasn't there, or saw something like a man in a Bigfoot suit. In other words, in the absence of evidence, the default position is disbelief.

I treat the existence of god the same way. In the absence of empirical evidence that cannot be explained by science under naturalistic causes, the default position is disbelief. This is especially so when the claim being made requires the supernatural. That means I say "I don't believe in god" but I don't say "I know god doesn't exist". Proof of non-existence is not required in order to not believe, all that is needed in the case of god is a plausible natural explanatory alternative. So therefore on the scale above, I would generally fall under moderate atheism because I do not assert that "there is no god," since it cannot be proved.


  1. Congratulations. This is definitely the best taxonomy of the range of human beliefs regarding God that I have ever seen. Since the existence of God cannot be disproved, my default position is that there is a God!

    1. Congratulations on being a strong theist. I think it depends on what kind of specific god you believe in. Certain specific gods I think can be disproved with logic, check out my evolutionary argument against god:

  2. I do not believe your "scale of belief" is an accurate illustration of agnosticism; frankly, placing agnosticism so close to atheism betrays a severe misunderstanding of what agnosticism even is. Agnosticism makes a claim regarding knowledge - that one cannot have the knowledge of God's existence or God's non-existence. Both atheism and theism are not based off of knowledge but rather are equally leaps of faith; they are beliefs. Whether one's worldview is shaped by fundamentalist mysticism or scientific fanaticism, they both require presuppositions in order to really hold any water. That is why different worldviews clash in the first place - they each have certain notions that they rely on. The reason why agnosticism is of its own category (and why it should not be so easily paired with atheism) is because it does not hold any presuppositions at all. The brand of New Atheism that has become so popular wields science just as Christians hold God; just as Christians hold the presupposition that God exists and created all of existence, atheists hold the presuppositions that one can rely on one's own perception in gathering information about reality and that the laws of physics will continue to work tomorrow. The presuppositions of science are simple, and don't get me wrong, I love and trust science. When it comes to comparing philosophies and worldviews though, one cannot deny that ultimately, every worldview is in the same predicament. In this post, you implied that atheism is the default worldview (particularly in that you mentioned everyone who does not truly believe in God must be an atheist) - frankly, this simply isn't true. I would wager that agnosticism is the default view; accepting that we cannot truly know and understand our existence and reality seems much more logical to me than claiming belief in anything. With that said, beliefs are not totally incompatible with an agnostic position. One can be an agnostic theist just as much as one can be an agnostic atheist because agnosticism only makes claims about knowledge, not belief. Any Christian or atheist that accepts that one cannot truly have knowledge of God's existence or non-existence essentially is an agnostic.

    Regarding beliefs in general, fanaticism is a bad thing. I have seen among the New Atheists a type of fundamentalism that is just as bad as the religious fundamentalists. Stay away from this mindset; while beliefs can be used to justify the worst in humanity, it can also bring out the best because ultimately, what we believe reflects who we are.

    1. I don't disagree with you on some parts. Though I think agnostics technically are atheists because they do not actively believe in god. Agnosticism is an epistemic position, you are right on that, and I included that in my scale. How would a scale look if you made it?



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