Distinguishing Atheism, Theism, and Agnosticism

What if it can be shown that there is a reasonable alternative to traditional Christian theism (on the one hand) and atheism (on the other)? Among other things, this would suggest that the defeat of orthodox Christian theism does not necessarily and in itself spell doom for theism. Further, just as theism bears the argumentative burden of proof in establishing its claim that God exists, so too does atheism bear a burden of argument in establishing the logical denial of theism’s central claim. Each position requires evidentiary support. And should the evidence for theism, on the oIe hand, and the evidence for atheism, on the other, each turn out to be supported strongly and coherently by evidence that is incomparable to one another and hence unable to be weighed against each other except from an unduly biased (question-begging) perspective, then agnosticism becomes a tentative position of reasonable acceptance for those who take the issue of the existence of God seriously. Assumed here is the idea that atheism is not properly understood to be the position that theists of this or that kind cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt their central claim: the God hypothesis. As Kai Nielsen writes: “To be atheists we need to deny the existence of God. ”Nielsen, Philosophy & Atheism, p. 10.) It is the logical denial of theism which holds that “God exists,” just as theism is the logical affi rmation of the denial of atheism. And just as the responsible theist will be a fallibilist, so will the thoughtful atheist. (Nielsen, Philosophy & Atheism, p. 15.)

One way in which atheism expresses its fallibilism is by stating the denial of God’s existence in probabilistic terms, just as the theist might express the existence of God inductively. In this way, there is a certain agnostic tempering of theism and atheism, respectively. Only their infallibilist cousins seem to be quite different from agnosticism.

While it is crucial to see the atheist’s error of bifurcation implicit in atheism these days, it is not fallacious for the atheist to infer from the history of argumentation about the God of orthodox Christian theism that it is not the case that the God of traditional Christian theism exists.

Agnosticism can take different forms. It is often understood to mean that one cannot in light of the relevant evidence make up one’s mind about the existence of God, e.g., that one can neither responsibly affi rm nor deny God’s existence in light of the relevant available evidence. In epistemological terms, it means that given the evidence I cannot accept the proposition, “God exists.” But it also means that in light of the evidence I cannot accept the claim that “It is not the case that God exists.”
However, we must delve deeper into agnosticism in order to better grasp its true nature as it has often been the victim of misrepresentation. For as we saw in the previous chapter, there are at least two ways to take these agnostic claims. One is to admit that one cannot make up one’s mind about the existence of God because one thinks that, all relevant things considered, one wishes to embrace both that “God exists” and its denial in that the evidence justifi es accepting this contradiction. I shall refer to this position as “positive agnosticism.” But another way to be an agnostic is to deny that either opposing claim about the existence of God possesses suffi cient
evidence to warrant our assent. I call this “negative agnosticism.” Of course, a variant of these positions, one I refer to as “mixed agnosticism,” is one where I cannot decide between theism and atheism because of some of the evidence that is comparable between these competing views, though other parts of the evidence profi le for each position cannot possibly be weighed against each other without undue bias. This might occur in a case where the balance of reason in light of available evidence might represent a genuine dialectical stalemate between theism and atheism.

The New Agnosticism does not, however, call for a détente between atheism and theism that amounts to “the suspension of both theistic and atheistic belief, coupled with offi cial neutrality between them.” (David O’Connor, God and Inscrutable Evil (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefi eldPublishers, Inc., 1998), p. xii. Indeed, O’Connor’s work addresses only the problem of evil as an objection to theism of the orthodox variety. So it is difficult to know whether what is established is a détente between atheism and theism at all. For even if orthodox theism survived the objection from evil, it might still be the case that it failed to withstand the objections to the traditional
“proofs” for the existence of God. Moreover, even if orthodox theism failed to
provide plausible replies to such objections, there might be unorthodox theisms
that can answer them.
) Rather, it calls for a reexamination of the problem of God from a new perspective, untainted by the conceptual perils of orthodox Christian theism and atheism’s seemingly pathological focus on its
vanquishing this brand of theism.

The conceptual way or the taxonomy of these views of atheism, theism, and agnostism that is to follow is instructive to point out that agnosticism has been mischaracterized even by judicious thinkers. Yet a careful examination of some such portrayals of it reveals that it is defi ned in terms that conflate it with atheism
or conveniently support the plausibility of atheism in the attempt to stifle further discussion about the God hypothesis.

Consider Nielsen’s description of agnosticism as asserting that “we can neither know nor have sound reasons for believing that God exists . . .”(Nielsen, Philosophy & Atheism, p. 22.) Again: “We do not know and cannot ascertain whether ‘God’ secures a religiously adequate referent. . . . The agnostic, . . . is not led to faith, but he does believe that such questions cannot be answered.”(Nielsen, Philosophy & Atheism, p. 24.) The problem with Nielsen’s construal of agnosticism is that it describes the agnostic as one who states that we “cannot know” that God exists or that God-talk is meaningful. The reason this is problematic is that this position is essentially indistinguishable from atheism, epistemically speaking. Contrary to
Nielsen, agnosticism need not and is not most charitably seen as the view that we cannot know or ascertain the truth-value of “God exists.” Rather, it is either the view that the central theistic claim appears to be neither true nor false because of lack of adequate supportive evidence on either side of the debate, or that it is at the present time unable to be decided with adequacy due to certain factors of ambiguity, an evidentiary nature, or conceptual confusion. But nothing about agnosticism, properly understood, entails the idea that we cannot know that or whether God exists, as
Nielsen suggests. That the agnostic simply is not, by proper defi nition of “agnostic,” entitled to accept. The reason for this is the essentially openended and fallibilistic position of the true agnostic as one who is open to the possibi lity that the evidence for “God exists” might someday be found, or that in the future suffi cient evidence will be discovered to discount it.

Agnosticism worthy of the name is not an inferior and confused form of atheism, as so many seem to think. Rather, it is not a form of atheism at all, nor is it a kind of theism. It is, rather, a position distinct from these two opposing views. Most certainly, the genuine agnostic cannot subscribe to Nielsen’s atheistic claim that

. . . there are no good intellectual grounds for believing in God and very
good ones, perhaps even utterly decisive ones, for not believing in God; and
there is no moral or human need, let alone necessity, for a nonevasive and informed person in the twentieth century to have religious commitments of any kind.– (Neilsen, Philosophy & Atheism p.40)

One reason why this statement is problematic is that Nielsen has not taken into serious consideration nontraditional theisms that non-evasively attempt to restate the nature and function of God in terms that seem to evade the many criticisms of traditional Christian theism, and suggest a divine nature that the rationalist and empiricist can accept. Unless and until this stage of the argument is conducted, the scientifi c and rationalistic enterprise of atheism remains incomplete, and thus found wanting in a serious way. In fact, to the extent that atheism for whatever reasons fails to address nontraditional theisms that explicitly attempt to answer atheistic concerns with traditional Christian theism, atheism is guilty of a kind of epistemic irresponsibility.

In light of the attempts of process and liberation theologies to address various concerns with traditional Christian theism, unless and until such views are successfully refuted, the best position then open to the honest inquirer into God’s possible existence is the New Agnosticism (or agnosticism, properly understood).

It will not do to resort to an implicit form of the fallacy of ad hominem, as Nielsen does at one point in his defense of atheism, referring to one such attempt as a “ploy”:

A standard ploy at this moment in the dialectic is to maintain that utterances
like “God is all merciful,” “God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth”
or “God loves all His creation,” are symbolic or metaphorical utterances
which manifest the ultimate or Unconditioned Transcendent but are themselves
not literal statements which could be true or false. They hint at an
ineffable metaphysical ultimate which is, as Tillich put it, “unconditionally
beyond the conceptual sphere . . .” On the remarkable assumption that such
verbosities are helpful explications, some theologians, addicted to this
obscure manner of speaking. . .(Neilsen, Philosophy & Atheism p.88-89

Granted, existentialist Christian theologians like Paul Tillich often express their notions of God in terms somewhat diffi cult to understand. In fact, their descriptions of God’s nature and function can at times become downright incomprehensible, especially for us analytic philosophers who strive for clarity of thought and language as well as sound argumentation. But Nielsen’s interpretive claim of Tillich’s view that “Given the proper experience, the reality they obliquely attest to will, while remaining irreducibly mysterious, be humanely speaking undeniable” hardly indicates a serious
attempt to generously understand Tillich’s words in a way that might further the discussion.(Indeed, many orthodox Christian theologians are unsympathetic with
Tillichian theology, perhaps due to their bias against the reconceptualization of
anything theistically orthodox. But not having sympathy for a view does not
amount to understanding it suffi ciently to refute it.) As such, it is questionable and seems to violate the principle of charity (More on the principle of charity can be gleaned from Jorge Gracia, “History and the Historiography of Philosophy,” in Donald M. Borchert, Editor, Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd Edition (London: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2006)
. in the interpretation of texts and the ideas they express.

Nothing about analytical philosophy prevents us from conducting such fair interpretations and assessments of views we fi nd hard to grasp. What the debate about God needs is not dismissiveness of new ideas from either theists or atheists, but honest and open-minded inquiry about views of suffi cient seriousness that they deserve our undivided scrutiny. Precisely this attitude is found, by the way, elsewhere in Nielsen:

What we need to recognize is that the concept of God is very problematic
indeed. What is crucially at issue is to ascertain, if we can, whether
suffi cient sense can be made of religious conceptions to make faith a live
option for a refl ective and concerned human being possessing a reasonable
scientifi c and philosophical understanding of the world he lives in, or
whether some form of atheism or agnosticism is the most nonevasive option
for such a person.- (Nielsen, Philosophy & Atheism, p. 28.

This challenge is essentially the same one issued both by Bertrand Russell and J. L. Mackie, and as noted earlier it is the one I shall undertake in later chapters of this book. But one wonders whether a self-described atheist is really an atheist after all if, as Mackie and Nielsen, they are truly open to the possibility of there being an alternative and plausible theism. Perhaps they are atheists in a rather restricted sense such that they deny the claim “God (as understood by traditional Christian theism) exists,” while remaining agnostic about theism more generally. If this is true, it is a bit misleading to refer to such a position as being atheistic as “atheism” denotes a denial of the existence of any God. As one who has gone to great lengths to criticize theism for its abuses of religious language,(Nielsen, Philosophy & Atheism, Chapters 1–5.) Nielsen stands condemned by his own words

The Errors of Atheism – J. Angelo Corlett, The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010, Pg 60-65