Theism, Atheism and Agnosticism

often accuse theists of arrogance, since they claim to know, for
certain, that God does not exist. Likewise, atheists are often
accused of arrogance, since they claim with absolute certainty that
God does not exist. Someone who does not want to get accused of
arrogance might say that they are an agnostic – instead of saying
“I believe” or “I don’t believe”, they say “I don’t know”
or “I can’t know” if God exists. This, however, is a confusion of
what theism, atheism and agnosticism actually mean.

is the belief that at least
one deity exists. Although it is true that many theists will say “I
know that God exists”, with faith as the justification for their
certainty, theism is really only about belief. You can believe in
something without thinking it is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
But this does not mean a belief is just an opinion – beliefs can
also be, and should be, based on evidence. Atheism is simply the
rejection of theism. It is not its own belief system, but a response
to the claim that God exists. And its response is a lack of belief in
God or any other deity. The atheist will say “I do not believe in
God”, not “God does not exist.” So neither theism or atheism is
arrogant by nature.

is not the opposite of Gnosticism (a medieval school of thought which
teaches that union with God is achieved through abstinence and
philanthropy.) Agnosticism means “without knowledge” and does not
mean, as many think, that there’s a 50:50 chance whether God exists or
not; that it’s just as likely that God exists and that God doesn’t
exist. Agnosticism is the view that the truth or falsity or certain
claims, usually the claim of God’s existence, is unknown or
unknowable. Agnosticism is more to do with knowledge than belief. An
agnostic will say “I do not know if God exists”, but this does
not mean that the agnostic thinks that God’s existence is just as
likely as God’s non-existence.

Henry Huxley or Darwin’s “bulldog” coined the term agnostic
in 1869, although agnostic thought has existed for much longer.
Sanjaya Belatthaputta, an Indian ascetic teacher and contemporary of
the Buddha, said that when confronted with claims about the afterlife
and supernatural beings, said that he prefers to neither believe nor
disbelieve in them. In Protagoras’ lost work On the Gods,
he wrote: “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether
they exist or not.” That, in a nutshell, is the agnostic position.

But if agnosticism is just about a lack of knowledge, whereas theism
and atheism focuses on belief, can you be an agnostic theist or an
agnostic atheist? You never hear people describe themselves with
either of these labels, yet the labels are not contradictory. An
agnostic theist is someone who does not know if God exists, but
believes in God’s existence anyway. The existentialist Soren
Kierkegaard falls into this category. He said that a knowledge of God
is impossible.

agnostic atheist, on the other hand, is someone who does not know if
God exists, but does not believe in God’s existence. I would probably
describe myself as an agnostic atheist. I do not know that God
doesn’t exist, in the same way I do not know that demons do not exist,
but I still disbelieve in the existence of God (and demons). The
agnostic part of this label seems like common sense – I just cannot
know the existence or non-existence of God for certain, so I won’t claim to
have knowledge that I don’t have. I think that’s a humble opinion to
have. But I leave open the possibility
that God exists because, well, anything
is pretty much possible if it doesn’t violate the laws of physics or
the rules of logic. Whether the properties of God (as omnipotent,
omniscient and omnipresent) would violate the laws of physics or the
rules of logic is another issue altogether.

I believe that atheism, as a
lack of belief in God, is justified because there is a total absence
of evidence for God’s existence. The lack of belief then is based on what
evidence is available. Bertrand Russell is a famous example of an
agnostic atheist. Richard Dawkins, although known as a
staunch atheist, admits that the possibility of God’s existence must
be left open for scientific inquiry. He argues, however, that the
likelihood of God’s existence is so low (because there’s so many
religions, so many gods, total absence of evidence for any one of
them) that he is 99% certain God does not exist. The 99% is not
supposed to be an accurate estimation, just a way of representing how
improbable it is that any god exists.


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