Atheism and Humble Claims to Knowledge

Over recent months I have become more and more interested in literature regarding the justifications for atheism. Though I have been buying books of these sort for some time, I’m interested to see how a particular philosopher will begin before he sets up his arguments against theism. As of recently I have seen a strange trend among unbelievers regarding the definition of atheism and what it means to “deny” the existence of God. Let’s look at a few examples.

Ernest Nagel was the university emeritus professor of philosophy at Columbia University and served as editor for numerous journals such as the Journal of Philosophy (1938-56), the Journal of Symbolic Logic (1940-46), and the Philosophy of Science (1956-59). One work in particular that I’m interested in examining is his paper entitled Philosophical Concepts of Atheism (1959) in which he understood atheism as the following:

I shall understand by “atheism” a critique and a denial of the major claims of all varieties of theism… not to be identified with sheer unbelief, or with disbelief in some particular creed of a religious group. Thus, a child who has received no religious instruction and has never heard about God, is not an atheist – for he is not denying any theistic claims. [1]

However, in direct contrast, atheist George Smith in his book Atheism: The Case Against God (1979) offers a completely different perspective on the meaning of atheism:

Atheism… is the absence of theistic belief. One who does not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist… Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief. [2]

However, Smith goes on later to state that “it is the atheist who demands proof from the theist, not vice-versa” [3]. His reasoning for this is because the burden of proof ‘‘falls on the person who affirms the truth of a proposition, such as ‘God exists.’ If the theist claims to know that God exists, then we have the cognitive right – indeed, the responsibility – to ask this person how he acquired this knowledge and why we should take him seriously” [4]. Therefore, we can avoid the dilemma that I wish to explore.

Epistemic Humility 

Always an interesting problem presented to atheism has been the assertion that they are not humble in their claims to knowledge. Of course, if we are sticking to Nagel’s supposed “explicit” definition [5] of atheism, then the atheist cannot justify what he tries to establish. Annie Besant in her essay Why I Do Not Believe in God (1887) rightly points out:

For be it remembered that the Atheist makes no general denial of the existence of God; he does not say, “There is no God”… the proof of a universal negative requires the possession of a perfect knowledge of the universe of discourse, and in this case the universe of discourse is conterminous with the totality of existence. No man can rationally affirm “There is no God”, until the word “God” has for him a definite meaning, and until everything that exists is known to him, and known with what Leibniz calls “perfect knowledge” [6].

The significance of this passage (as I think she is right) is that atheism cannot justify a universal claim such as “There is no God”, for that would assume that the atheist throughout the totality of existence has “perfect knowledge” (indeed, God-like knowledge) that there is no God. Smith even recognizes this in his book when he says that “No one can lay claim to omniscience, but this is precisely what the atheist supposedly does when he says that God does not exist” [7].

In order to avoid the problem, Smith responds that

The short and easy refutation achieves its victory by attacking a counterfeit form of atheism that has rarely been advocated by real atheists… Nineteenth-century atheists repeatedly attacked the short and easy refutation by exposing its faulty definition of atheism (known as positive atheism, since it positively affirms the nonexistence of God).

Charles Bradlaugh, the late nineteenth-century British freethinker even in his essay A Plea for Atheism (1864) subscribes to Smith’s view of atheism when he wrote that the “Atheist does not say ‘There is no God’, but he says: ‘I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word ‘God’ is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation” [8].

Theism and Humble Claims to Knowledge 

Famous magician Penn Jillette in his new book, God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales (2011) has regarded theists as ‘arrogant’ for claiming to have insight into the question regarding God’s existence [9]. He even goes on to say that “what I’m claiming is not in any way arrogant. It couldn’t be more humble. It’s just ‘I don’t know'” (xvi). However, I would have to side with Besant on this issue, that given Nagel’s definition of atheism (which has been the historical definition), atheism does not present itself as some kind of ‘agnostic ignorance’ like that found in Penn Jillette’s book.

All theism claims to hold, is the possibility of somewhere in the totality of existence a being that is recognized and believed to be God, exists. This is a much more humble claim than what atheism holds.

__________________________

Notes:

  • [1] quoted from Critiques of God, ed. Peter Angeles (Promotheus Books: 1997) p. 4
  • [2] George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Promotheus Books: 1979) p. 7
  • [3] Ibid., p. 27
  • [4] George Smith, Why Atheism? (Promotheus Books: 2001) p. 31
  • [5] see Smith (1979), p. 13
  • [6] quoted from Gordon Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (Promotheus Books: 1980) p. 31
  • [7] Smith (2001), p. 22
  • [8] Gordon Stein (1980), p. 10
  • [9] Penn Jillette, God, No! (Simon&Schuster Publishing: 2011) xvi.
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13 responses to “Atheism and Humble Claims to Knowledge

  1. Well said. I wondered why many atheists wish to change the subject from ontology, existence or nonexistence of God, to epistemology, belief or lack of it in God in adopting these definitions of atheism.

    I tend to point out that a person A may have absense of belief that P is true, even P is true and the verse. Example I may have absense of belief(epistemologically) that my wife is with child, but that does not follow that my wife is with or without a child(ontology). If this is so, then atheism is a subjective pyschological state having less or nothing to do with the trufulness or falsity of outside reality.

    Could a theist flash an atheist out, holding those definitions, that what is Mr. Atheist’s justification for having the lack of belief in theism? Why should an agnostic take an atheist’s position seriously? And if it takes affirming a claim to bear the burden of proof, could not a lazy theist define his belief as absense of/lack belief in atheism? And if one does not know the idea of God, then how can one have prensence or absense of the unknown? Should not one know x before passing judgement for or aginst x?

    – Prayson

    • Prayson Daniel writes, “I wondered why many atheists wish to change the subject from ontology, existence or nonexistence of God, to epistemology, belief or lack of it in God in adopting these definitions of atheism.”

      George Smith (and Antony Flew before him, in *God and Philosophy* [1966]) and Annie Besant (whom I was not aware of) have the correct meaning, regarding the general concept of “atheism”.

      In regard to epistemology, atheists do very frequently (if not virtually all the time) encounter theists who wish to change the subject from epistemology precisely because they have enough awareness about their lack of credible empirical evidence to substantiate their claims about the existence of some god that they would rather not deal with the subject of good evidence at all.

      “a person A may have absence of belief that P is true, even if P is true”

      And, of course, that neither implies that a god (your particular god) exists, nor that there is any good evidence for the existence of this god. A person may have absence of belief that alien abductions have been taking place on Earth for the last few decades, even if P is true. And this implies what, exactly? The insinuation that this is supposed to represent some sort of serious argument for the existence of a god is patently absurd.

      “If this is so, then atheism is a subjective psychological state having less or nothing to do with the truthfulness or falsity of outside reality.”

      False. Atheism is the epistemological claim that there is not good evidence to substantiate the claim that a god exists, meaning that belief in a god is as baseless, in terms of what we know about reality, as belief in alien abductions. (Actually, belief in a god would be even more baseless, because at least in terms of alien abductions claims are made in regard to referents about things in the real world that we know exist – biological organisms, machines capable of space travel, and so on – whereas claims about gods, ghosts, angels, spirits, demons, heavens, hells, and so on are based on a “spirit world” and “spirit beings” for which there is zero credible evidence of any of these things being any part of reality in the first place). This claim (that there is not good evidence to substantiate the idea of a god) can be countered by producing good empirical evidence (which is precisely why this is an epistemological issue) – which precisely is based on dealing with reality, not subjective psychological states. (Indeed, the remark I have quoted is rather ironic, since it is made in the face of the fact that religious believers very often rely on statements about their subjective experience when asked to produce good evidence to justify the idea that a god exists.

      “And if it takes affirming a claim to bear the burden of proof, could not a lazy theist define his belief as absence of/lack belief in atheism?”

      Which, of course, makes no sense as an insinuated argument for belief in a god because of what the concepts mean: ‘And if it takes affirming a claim to bear the burden of proof, could not a lazy theist define his belief as not accepting the non-acceptance of the idea that a god exists due to a lack of good evidence?’ Yes! Exactly! That is precisely how the vast majority of theists appear to define their belief in a god. They refuse to accept their epistemological burden and write reams and reams of rhetoric for the precise purpose of trying to run away from their burden of proof – and we thank Prayson Daniel for demonstrating exactly what I’m talking about.

  2. Theism per se takes that humble position, but I don’t know many people whose position is bare theism. As a Christian I claim to know much more than that.

    Is that arrogant? Not when we recognize where that knowledge comes from. Christian theism includes the claim that God is the creator of humans and the source of knowledge and of communication. Therefore he can and does communicate knowledge to us at his pleasure and by his own will. To know something of God is possible because he can and does make it known.

    • I’m skeptical of the idea that we can call any position arrogant, full stop.

      Christians (or theists of other stripes) can hold views without arrogance, they may be open to revision of those views. Or, contrarily, can be extremely arrogant, and claim to speak for God. The same would apply to atheists.

      But none of this speaks to whether or not “God exists” or “God doesn’t exist” is the more plausible view–which is what really should be the issue.

  3. I’ve been bothered by the “lacks belief” definition of atheism as well. It seems rather like a distraction from the question “Does God exist?”, which is what should be the point of discussion.

  4. I’m confused by what you write. I think that most atheists would state that there is no reason to believe in the existence of gods. Our multi-cultural world does not blinker us to the dominant religion or theistic belief is our area – and very few people now refer to the god God as the only invisible deity they don’t follow, yet your entire post refers only to this god God, as if it is the only option in the world. Have I misunderstood anything? Because it seems you have.

    • Hello Violetwisp, and thank you for your comment.

      I don’t think for the most part you are quite on target in regards to the extent of what I’m saying. The full thrust of what I’m suggesting in my post is that atheism cannot epistemically justify its own claims (see the Nagel quote for the explicit definition) to asserting the non-existence of God (indeed, to do so would constitute perfect knowledge of the totality of existence).

      In regards to your last comment, of course as I have written in other places, theists (Christians in particular) are not expected to walk through the 2,000+ gods throughout Eastern/Western religious history in order to substantiate its own claims. We are limited to worldviews instead: Pantheism, Monotheism, Atheism, Panentheism, and Polytheism. If it can be shown that the other worldviews fail while theism does not, we can then move into the more dogmatic claims of particular monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam).

      • Thanks for the reply. I’m maybe not familiar with how other atheists express their thoughts in this area. I’m sure most would agree that it simply means there’s no reason to believe that any of the gods that people worship actually exist. It’s impossible to prove the non-existence of any invisible supernatural force.

        I wasn’t suggesting that Christians have to justify their faith against other religions, I just wanted to clarify that most atheists don’t think of their position in relation to only Christianity, as you seem to suggest.

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  8. Any atheist who claims “There is no God” without comprehensively defining what they mean definitely needs to justify such an audacious claim to knowledge.

    If God is defined as an infinite, immaterial, personal being or mind, then I would say that particular definition of God does not exist or (this is the more humble position) is to me highly implausible hence me not accepting the notion. If the definition is left open and more sophisticated concepts are put forth, I would call myself a Spinozist. I find his arguments to be the most convincing for the existence of this substance by which all else causally flows.

    I think every atheist, agnostic, what have you, should read up on Theology, particularly Christian Theology. Even though I may be skeptical of many claims, I enjoy the subject matter and it better informs me on the subject which I am skeptical about. I find that many atheists will just deny claims outright but this suggests a superior knowledge which I myself refuse to claim. They will also ask questions such as “Who created God?” Or “Why did God make evil?” Which are quite easily answered questions with some rudimentary theological education.

    I find myself debating atheists more than I do theologians or philosophers of religion! Quite ironic haha. It really comes down to how the person chooses to interpret the world. To put it succinctly, neither the atheist nor the theist can say with absolute certainty God exists or Not (at least not without a proper definition and justification).

    I loathe arrogance on both sides and that’s what we are getting in the pop discussions of this topic. Progressive intellectual discourse in my opinion, does not come from debate or incessant bashing of beliefs; I would say it comes from a comprehensive lay out of ideas and positions, then a calm friendly discussion of the reasons for each position.

    You seem to be one of those people interested in progressive discourse, I applaud the humility and intellectual maturity you express in your posts.

    My regards,

    Matthew

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