Agnosticism vs atheism, redux
John Lennox – mathematician and Christian apologist – is in town again, and giving talks at UCT, Stellenbosch and in Johannesburg. I’ve twice had the pleasure (or at least, experience) of chatting to him at length regarding his views on whether there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, and there’s no question that he’s a very smart and sincere man.
But he’s also wrong.
I’ve written many posts over the years dealing with meta-ethics and morality, and have debated a few Christian apologists on these topics over the years. There’s little point in doing so with the hope of changing their minds (and vice versa), but these conversations can still be very valuable to an audience, in that listeners or readers could certainly benefit from hearing how much moral behaviour we find in non-human animals, or about the clear lack of correlation between religious belief and “good” moral choices.
Tonight, I’ll be attending a debate between Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser on exactly this topic. Eusebius is unlikely to say much that I’ll want to disagree with on this topic, but I do want to use the debate as a segue to briefly return to a topic he and I do disagree on an have discussed on numerous occasions, namely the question of whether we should call ourselves atheists or agnostics.
I’ve written about this at length too, so I’ll just summarise the disagreement here. All knowledge – excepting technical points like Descartes’ cogito – does not entail certainty. We can be overwhelmingly convinced of the truth or falsity of any given proposition, and for the sake of communicative efficiency, we call those propositions “true” or “false”.
Furthermore, we’ll in all likelihood often right to call many of those propositions true or false. In other words, they correspond to the way the world actually is.
What does it mean to say that you’re an atheist, as opposed to an agnostic? Here’s the problem: it can mean at least three things. First, you could mean that you’re sure that there is no God – that “God exists” is a false proposition. Second, you could mean that you are sure that there are no gods at all, or in general – that all god claims are false. Or third, you could be saying that you regard it as overwhelmingly likely that one of the two formulations above are correct, without claiming certainty.
The third formulation is consistent with the way in which I treat all other propositions, and I see no reason to treat propositions relating to God(s) differently. I don’t claim certainty for any other propositions, and wouldn’t want to claim one here, even if the chances of God(s) existing are vanishingly small.
Does that, then, make me an agnostic, as opposed to an atheist? Eusebius says yes, it does, and that it’s a more epistemically responsible choice to call myself an agnostic. And here’s where he’s not so much wrong, but perhaps reaching a slightly hasty and unsubtle conclusion.
We don’t need a qualifier like agnostic (in the sense that it qualifies that you’re not certain) when we speak about propositions like grass being green, or smoking causing cancer. Everyone from one interpretive community – the philosophically inclined one – will fill in the epistemic doubt for themselves, and know that you’re not making an absolute claim.
However, everyone from a different interpretive community – those who regard truth claims as being absolute – will simply assume you’re using language in the conventional sense (and to be honest, how most of us use it, most of the time), and that you are making a claim of absolute certainty.
And this, in turn, opens up the possibility of using these words – just like we use most words – to signal a certain stance or attitude towards the proposition in question, cognisant of who the audience is. If Eusebius and I are talking, we could both say we are atheists, and neither of us will assume the other is claiming certainty. Likewise, we could both say we are agnostics, and neither of us will assume that the other is in doubt about the overwhelming likelihood that we are correct in saying God(s) don’t exist.
But when talking to other people, especially ones we don’t know, we can be fairly confident that the common understanding of “agnostic” is “we’re not sure” – in other words, it signals that it’s an open question to us as to whether God(s) exist or not. And while it’s an open question in a strictly logical sense, it’s not an open question in any practically relevant sense, just like it’s not an open question whether grass is green or not.
So, using the word “atheist” – in situations where we don’t have the time to explain all this – might well both capture our position more accurately (in the mind of the audience), as well as serve a useful political function in reinforcing the notion that the proposition in question (that God exists) is one that we consider overwhelmingly likely to be false.
Having said that, I’ve come to prefer “agnostic atheist”, in that it seems a “best of both worlds” response, as well as one that tends to open up an interesting conversation, thanks both to not appearing to be dogmatic, and because it tends to discourage a dogmatic response (except in the case of some atheists, who think it a cop-out).
Before signing off, I’d encourage you to take a look at Eusebius’s column this week. I agree with most of it, but would again want to disagree on some elements of politics and strategy, especially with regard to his example of Richard Dawkins, who has progressed from being a useful lightning rod to becoming somewhat of a troll. Since writing that post, he’s of course given us many more things to argue about, but I’ll leave those for another day.