The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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Atheism and Agnosticism

There is much confusion about the meaning of the term atheism. Furthermore there is quite a widespread lack of understanding about its conceptual relationship with agnosticism and theism. In this posting we attempt to clarify the situation by concentrating on a few key issues:

  • The definition of the term atheism, as used by most atheists, is quite different from what one finds in dictionaries and in common use among non atheists.

  • Agnosticism is not a middle position between atheism and theism. In its original, and proper meaning, it is an epistemological paradigm-a theory of knowledge.

  • Atheism, properly defined, places the burden on proof squarely at the feet of the theist.

  • There are two forms of atheism: positive (strong-form) atheism and negative (weak-form) atheism.

Definition of Atheism

The Webster's New World College Dictionary (Macmillan 1996) defines atheism as "the belief that there is no God or a denial that God or gods exist." [1] In contrast it gives agnosticism as the belief "that the human mind cannot know whether there is a God or an ultimate cause." [2]

This indeed is how many non atheists understand the terms. Unfortunately, the definition of atheism given in Webster’s, and in most dictionaries, is incorrect. Most atheists do not define atheism that way. A proper understanding of the etymology of the word provides the actual meaning. As Michael Martin, Professor of Philosophy at Boston University explains:

In Greek "a" means "without" or "not" and "theos" means "god". From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of a belief in God. [3]
[Emphasis added]

Defined in this way, theism and atheism are mutually exclusive and, more importantly with respect to agnosticism, collectively exhaustive. As another atheist philosopher, George H. Smith explains:

The prefix "a" means "without, so the term "a-theism" literally means "without theism", or without belief in a god or gods. Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic belief...."Atheism" is a privative term, a term of negation, indicating the opposite of theism...In this context, theism and atheism exhaust all possible alternatives with regard to the belief in a god: one is either a theist or an atheist, there is no other choice. [4]
[Emphasis added]

Thus most atheists define atheism as being without belief in theism. Therefore if one is not a theist, one is then, by definition, an atheist! There is no middle ground.

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Where does all this leave the agnostic then? The word was first coined by Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895) in 1869. This was how he defined it:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you without regard to any other considerations. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend the conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. [5]

Note again how different the original definition of agnosticism is from the dictionary definition. To Huxley, agnosticism is an epistemological paradigm by which one can only affirm acceptance or adherence to a theory or belief only if it can be demonstrated to be true. Thus applying this concept to theism, if one is unable to reach a certain conclusion as to the existence of God, one cannot then have any belief in God-one is thus, by definition, an atheist! Huxley himself would fall under such a category.

However it must be admitted that many people who call themselves agnostics do use the term in the meaning that is in agreement the dictionary definition: that of saying that we simply cannot know whether there is a God or not. Such a person may be either a theist and atheist. Thus someone may claim that God is "unknowable" but nevertheless asserts that having faith will allow one to make the leap into the enlightenment of "eternal knowledge"! This is exactly the position taken by the Danish theologian Siren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). [6] Thus Kierkegaard position is that of theistic agnosticism.

Thus the label "agnostic" vis-à-vis the existence of God is not a very helpful one. As Robert Flint in his book Agnosticism (1903) succinctly points out:

[Agnosticism is] properly a theory about knowledge, not about religion. A theist and a Christian may be an agnostic; an atheist may not be an agnostic. An atheist may deny that there is a God, and in this case his atheism is dogmatic and not agnostic. Or he may refuse to acknowledge that there is a God simply on the ground that he perceives no evidence for his existence and finds arguments which have been advanced in proof of it invalid. In this case his atheism is critical, not agnostic. The atheist may be, and not infrequently is, an agnostic.[7]

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Theism, Atheism and the Burden of Proof

The definition of atheism in its broadest form as the absence of belief in God has important implications with respect to who holds the burden of proof. If one makes a positive assertion, then the obligation is on that person to present to evidence for his case. Some theists, hoping to cover the weakness of the positive case for God's existence tried to shift the burden of proof onto the atheist. By defining atheism as a rival belief to theism-i.e. the belief that there is no God or gods-they then argue that if the atheist cannot provide positive proof that God (or any type of supernatural first cause) does not exist then they are in no better position than theist. Indeed it is even claimed that being an atheist requires even more faith than a theist since the former has to believe he knows everything before he can know for certain that God does not exist.

Note however that by properly defining atheism as "without belief in theism", this problem does not arise. As George H. Smith explained:

When the atheist is seen as a person who lacks belief in a god, it becomes clear that he is not obligated to "prove" anything. The atheist qua atheist does not believe anything requiring demonstration; the designation "atheist" tells us , not what he believes to be true, but what he does not believe to be true. If others wish for him to accept the existence of a god, it is their responsibility to argue for the truth of theism-but the atheist is not similarly required to argue for the truth of atheism. [8]

Perhaps an analogy may help here. Suppose someone comes up to you and say "I believe there are three headed flying snakes in Jupiter. If you cannot prove me wrong, then my belief is as valid as yours." You may perhaps point out to this person that what we know of reptilian biology and of the Jovian atmosphere, makes it very unlikely that snakes - regardless of how many heads they have - could survive in such an environment. However one could easily imagine the retort from the believer in the Jovian triune reptile, "Ha! You are simply asserting your non-belief without any proof. Until you can built a spacecraft which can scan every cubic inch of the Jovian planet, I consider your position to be irrational." Furthermore he could argue that these snakes are such that they are simply undetectable by any known instrument made by man. Thus even if you did send a spacecraft to Jupiter and manage to (impossibly) scan the whole volume of the planet, he could still assert that that does not prove the three headed, invisible, undetectable-by-any-instrument, flying snakes do not exist. You will finally reach a position of telling him, "How do you know that such an invisible, undetectable animal exists on Jupiter, if it is indeed invisible and undetectable?" In other words, he has to provide proof before you would even consider the case any further.

Removed from any emotional attachment to the argument one can easily see that in this specific case the believer's position is absurd. The underlying reason is simple: anyone could make an absurd or extraordinary claim. It's easy, all they have to do is to say it. To prove these claims wrong would take a great amount of effort and often times (as in the claims of an undetectable, invisible snake in Jupiter above) impossible. Clearly then, the burden of proof has to fall on the party making the positive claim.

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Positive and Negative Atheism

Most philosophers further classify atheism into two categories: negative and positive atheism.

Negative atheism, or weak form atheism, is simply atheism in its most general form-that of not having any belief in a God or gods. Thus with respect to the truth of theism, all the negative atheist needs to do is to point out that all the classical philosophical arguments for God existence and the modern attempts to resuscitate them have failed. Similarly pseudo-scientific attempts such as intelligent design creationism and more folksy arguments from the beauty of nature and better health are completely unconvincing.

Positive atheism, or strong form atheism, is the positive belief that a God or gods do not exist. Now, as we have argued in the section above, the positive atheist does need to provide proof of his belief. Here the positive atheist normally specifies in advance exactly what concept of God is being positively rejected as non existing. This is important since there are countless ways in which a God or gods may be defined. The aloof God of the Deist is different from the "roll-up-your-sleeves" God of the Old Testament, which is in turn different from the anthropomorphic gods of the Greek pantheon. Different kinds of evidence would be required to prove such a God or gods do not exist.

I am a positive atheist with respect to the Christian God. The evidence for his non-existence lies primarily in the existence of evil and its incompatibility with an omniscient, omnipotent and omni benevolent deity (all knowing, all powerful and all good God). Furthermore the attributes of this God as defined by Christian theologians leads to logical contradictions.

It is important to note here that negative and positive atheism are not necessarily mutually exclusive positions. Thus while I am a positive atheist with respect to the known conceptions of gods of the world, I am a negative atheist with forms of gods which have yet to be thought up by future theists. After all how can I disprove something which have not even been thought up yet? This, incidentally, answers criticism made by some theists that to be an atheist one needs to "know everything". One does not need to "know everything" to be an atheist, since one can be a "weak form atheist" with respect to gods which have not yet been dreamt of in our philosophy. [9]

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1.Webster's New World Dictionary: p86
2.ibid: p26
3.Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification: p463
4.Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God: p7-8
5.Huxley, Science and the Christian Tradition: p245-246
6.Popkin & Stroll, Philosophy: p159,
7.quoted in Stein (ed), An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism: p6
8.Smith, op. cit: p16
9.Martin, op. cit.: p464-465

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