Atheism or Agnosticism: A Brief Appraisal

I am currently sitting in my guest accommodation at the University of Cambridge, before finally deciding that I should start the day. I am here for what promises to be a fascinating day of interaction and discussion – the first of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s series of workshops… this one specifically on research methods. It could be quite intimidating… as I am actually presenting my research thus far, and all the problems I have encountered, to twenty-one other (proper) academics. However, I am really looking forward to it… after the discussion yesterday evening over dinner it seems like we have such an exciting bunch of people in attendance… people working on atheist and humanist organisations in Britain, India and Egypt (for example), representatives from both sides of the Atlantic, people working with the representation and manifestation of “nonreligion” through social networks, folk attempting, like myself, to probe into the underexplored phenomenon of religious “nones”… absolutely fascinating. And I am writing the official conference report, so I had damn well better find it interesting!

Anyway… on the train down to Cambridge from Edinburgh yesterday, I had the opportunity to work my way through some of the articles that have been building up in my “to read” pile over the last few weeks, and one of them just got right under my skin. This was P. J. McGrath’s “Atheism or Agnosticism”, which although written in 1987 still sounds remarkably similar to other articles that I have read lately, and to many conversations that I have had over the years.

Unfortunately, McGrath is arguing against another article that I have not read, however he summaries this article in such a way that I believe I can continue to engage with McGrath’s position without having actually read the offending article. He states:

“THOMAS V. MORRIS has argued (‘Agnosticism’, ANALYSIS 45.4, October 1985, pp. 219-24) that if someone has no good grounds for believing in God, then he should be an agnostic rather than an atheist. The absence of good grounds for accepting an existence claim would warrant its denial, he believes, only if one were in a good epistemic position for assessing it. But since the assertion that God exists is a metaphysical existence claim, it is unlikely that one could be in a good position with regard to it unless one could prove or disprove it. Atheism is neither justified nor required therefore by the fact that one has no good reason for thinking that God exists. Morris’s position seems plausible at first glance…” (McGrath 1987, 54).

Well… yes, indeed it does! McGrath begins his critique by proceeding along the following, well trod, lines:

“a theory which requires us to suspend judgment about the existence of [hobgoblins, Devils, Zeus etc] must be open to serious question. Surely the reasonable attitude is that they are nothing more than the products of the human imagination.”

Can agnosticism not involve a probability judgement? You can still be an agnostic and say “I think that’s ridiculous/ludicrously unrealistic”. It’s just humble… I am aware that I may be bleating a little like Mark Vernon (see, for example, 2008) here (something I do NOT want to do), but it is entirely possible to judge something very unlikely, to live like an “atheist”, but at the same time accept that we simply cannot answer these questions. Hell, even Richard Dawkins admits that he would change his mind if sufficient evidence were to present itself. He just judges that this is so unlikely that it basically will never happen…

Jack David Eller succinctly sums up the agnostic endeavour as follows:

Agnosticism is “a means of arriving at a position. We might be better served to use the term in an adverbial sense, in the sense of thinking or judging “agnosticially”. But when we make this shift, we see that “agnostic” means nothing more than “rational”, for to use reason is to the follow the facts and only the facts, to base conclusions only on what can be demonstrated or detected in some way, and to refrain from “jumping to conclusions” on the basis of personal preference, emotion, or “faith”.” (2010, 9)

This is precisely what agnosticism is generally understood to be. However, Eller let’s his true colours show when he precedes this paragraph with the harsh statement that “agnosticism is not a “middle position” between theism and atheism because it is not a position at all” (ibid). Fair enough it might not be a middle position, but “not a position at all”??

This view is explained by the fact that Eller believes that:

“despite the insincere attempt at humility inherent in conventional agnosticism, the god-question only has two possible answers: yes there is such a thing as god(s) or no there is no such thing as god(s). […] “There is no third position between being in jail and not being in jail, or between prescribing a medicine and not prescribing it. Hesitating – often a wise course – is tentatively not doing. The conventional agnostic may think that she is hesitating to decide between god(s) and not god(s), but in the meantime she is not believing in god(s)” (ibid).

Rarely have I seen such a ludicrous example of a false dichotomy. A question may have only two answers… but the position that you believe one of these answers to be true but know that you cannot, no matter what evidence is presented, definitely land on one option rather than the other is most certainly a position! And this takes no account of the different connotations the word “god(s)” can have… many agnostics may well be de facto atheists regarding many particular religious of god, for whatever reason, but concerning a general overarching idea which appears to have convinced billions of people across the globe of its truth, they might be slightly more hesitant. Find a few billion people who are convinced of Zeus’ or leprechauns’ existence, and maybe there will be a few more agnostics regarding these entities.

Eller’s text is a perfect example of proselytising atheists attempting to co-opt agnostics, ipso facto and against their will, into their atheistic cause.

Whilst I don’t have the book here with me to properly cite, Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (2007), refers to what he calls the ideas of Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP) and Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP). PAP is fairly obviously an untenable and intellectually exhausting position to maintain… constantly maintaining that one cannot know anything truly about anything… it doesn’t really bode well for life in the modern world. TAP, according to Dawkins, is what all proper logical thinkers should adopt when approaching something about which they do not have sufficient evidence to make a decision. However, this is an agnosticism which they would willingly abandon should any suitable evidence present itself. However, where we disagree here seems to be on the assessment of the evidence. McGrath continues his article, stating that in his interpretation of Morris’s agnostic position:

“one should be an agnostic about all existence claims which one did not have good reason for believing to be true, so that it would be irrational to deny the existence of hobgoblins, Lilliputians, Descartes’s evil demon etc.

Since it does not seem possible to emend Morris’s account in any other way that is remotely plausible, I conclude that there are no good grounds for placing limits on the application of Ockham’s razor to pure existence claims. In the absence of positive evidence for God’s existence, therefore, one should be an atheist rather than an agnostic.” (McGrath 1987, 57)

A more nuanced articulation of the supposed dichotomy between belief and non-belief in “god(s)” is articulated by Michael Martin, who designates ‘lack’ of belief as “negative atheism” – exemplifying the etymologically rooted “someone without a belief in God” (Martin 2007, 1). He contrasts this with ‘positive atheism’, which applies to the standard dictionary definition – “the belief that there is no God” (ibid)

To this extent, then, are all agnostics who live their lives effectively like there is no god(s) really atheists, albeit of a “negative” variety? Jack David Eller is not convinced by this position:

“On the surface this may seem like a valid distinction, but upon closer inspection [we see the] false dichotomy between “not believing” and “believing not”, that is, not believing in god(s) and believing that there is no such thing as god(s). Indisputably, someone who maintains that there is no such thing as god(s) does not believe in them; to maintain otherwise is to be incoherent. Indisputably, someone who believes in god(s) maintains that there is such a thing; to maintain otherwise is equally incoherent. But what other possibilities are there? Can one maintain that there is no such thing as god(s) yet believe in them? Not without contradicting oneself. Can one maintain that there is such a thing as god(s) yet not believe in them? Not in any sensible way. So, it emerges that there are only two consistent positions: either one claims that there is such a thing as god(s) and believes in them, or one claims that there is no such thing as god(s) and does not believe in them. The dichotomy, then, is not between positive and negative atheism, but between theism and atheism.” (Eller 2010, 7)

There is some merit in this critique… technically if one does not believe in something, then one does not believe in it. In this sense then all agnostics are atheists. But contained within the agnostic position, as far as I understand it, is a willingness to engage with questions of the existence of the supernatural, and a much less active, and perhaps much more “measured”, disbelief than the type of atheism being advocated by McGrath, Dawkins, Eller and others.

To take an example: Up until a month or two ago, I would have described myself as a Liberal Democrat. However, thanks to my opinion that they have abandoned everything that they stood for, I am no longer. In the world of false dichotomies, I am therefore an a-Liberal Democrat. But this tells no one anything about my current position. There are many other political parties to whom I could now give me allegiance. The fact is that I have not given my allegiance to any other party as yet… I am assessing the evidence. And even when I “finish” assessing the evidence, and potentially assign myself to a political party… I may not be 100% convinced that this is the right decision. If we transfer this discussion to the existence of god(s), we can see that there is a lot more to it than the simple yes-no distinction.

So, coming back round to McGrath’s question of “atheism or agnosticism”, it seems that maybe, in the very black and white sense of believing or not believing in god(s), agnosticism is actually a form of atheism. I would maintain that the distinction between negative and positive atheism does apply, although even this is perhaps too dichotomous – as Susan Budd would say, there are “Varieties of Unbelief”. There are bound to be many more nuanced positions between these two poles of atheism. However, those ‘negative’ atheists who are further away from the ‘positive’ end of the spectrum, commonly identify as agnostics, and, I believe, hold this position because they do not want to be co-opted into the proselytising atheistic endeavour. Agnostics may fit some sort of basic criteria for being atheists (negative atheists), but as long as proselytising atheists keep trying to “out” them to the atheistic cause, and gain statistics for their anti-religious campaign, I think agnostics have every right to stick to their guns on this one.

I am not in any way claiming to speak for all agnostics or atheists on this one… no individual should ever attempt to do that. I get so annoyed when I read books where people try to dictate to me what I believe (or ‘should’) believe by virtue of the fact that we seem to identify with the same label. However, this article is my opinion, and my reaction to the setting up of false and/or misleading dichotomies which apply identity labels arbitrarily to people who vehemently disagree with the application of those labels.

I imagine this will be the first of many posts that I will make on this topic. Please do comment…. I, however, must be heading to this methods workshop. Adieu.


Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.

Eller, Jack David. 2010. What Is Atheism? In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 1-18. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Martin, Michael. 2007. General Introduction. In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, 1-7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McGrath, P. J. 1987. Atheism or Agnosticism. Analysis 47, no. 1 (January): 54-57.

Vernon, Mark. 2008. After Atheism: Science, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.



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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

6 responses to “Atheism or Agnosticism: A Brief Appraisal”

  1. aniruddhasen says :

    This isn’t directly relevant but worth sharing in some forum.
    Atheism was a recorded doctrine in pre-writing oral traditions in several parts of the old world. What most people, including ourselves, call Hinduism (a relatively recent addition to the several sobriquets used to describe a collection of faiths), has a recorded history of the “Charvakas” who were confirmed atheists. In the 6th century BCE and, perhaps, before that there were thinkers called the “sramanas”; Mahavira (founder of Jainism) and Buddha were both sramanas. Many of the sramanas were atheists, irreligious (in their anti-establishment stance) and rebels. Mahavira and Buddha were no exceptions. But their disciples had later deified both to keep the religion going. Mao was right; religion has been an opiate of the masses for far too long in India — impeding progress in the material fields. What does it matter if there is no god (God), after all?

  2. Andrew says :

    Your Liberal Democrat analogy was off and I’m surprised you didn’t notice. It doesn’t map to the agnostic/atheist issue. Deciding you’re no longer a Liberal Democrat is more closely analogous with deciding not to be a Catholic or Mormon anymore. You can still be a-Catholic and believe in a god(s).

    A more proper analogy, but still imperfect one, would be to say you used to believe in Government, but now you don’t and are now an anarchist. This makes the analogy much closer to the atheist/agnostic debate and much more black and white.

    Also, I disagree that agnostics call themselves such because the don’t want to identify with atheists (I think just the opposite), but more so, that they still want to identify with theists, and in particular, don’t want to upset family members and friends who are theist, or when speaking to atheists friends, don’t want to appear as a theist. The ‘agnostics’ that I know often have highly religious parents (mothers) or partners, and some of the religious people I’ve spoken to seem to regard agnostics with less contempt than atheists.

    Agnostic: “I don’t believe what you’re saying, but it ‘could’ be true.”
    Atheist: “I don’t believe what you’re saying.”

    • religionandmore says :

      Hi Andrew.

      I take your point on the Liberal Democrat analogy, in that I still ‘believe’ in politics, even though I have not decided on a label yet. However there isn’t really a term for this position. I am political without a political party, there are other positions which are non- or un-political, and then anti-political (or indeed anti-government). However these are all nuanced positions which cannot be encapsulated with one term.

      On your take on agnosticism, I totally agree. That matches my experience in many many cases. However, some will adop my interpretation (like myself) and still others will have many more. Agnostic is a valid position first and foremost because people adopt it. Their reasons and interpretations will be multifarious but grouped around a core element of witholding judgement, at least in principle of not practice

  3. Aniruddha Sen says :

    Please correct me someone, at the outset, if I am wrong or offensive.
    Institutional religions (Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam) are based on doctrines and tenets. They usually have recognised leaders who demand total (or as nearly total as practical) compliance. Yet schisms — cataclysmic or minor — happen all the time. How do pious people know God’s will? Is it not the human will that they submit to unknowingly? The nameless religion I was born into had started without any institutional base till relatively recent times when others christened it Hinduism. And the institutions that are trying to monopolise (and glorify) Hinduism are political to boot, despite the colour of their robes. It has become a ritualistic mess to a lay observer, with the masses sinking deeper into pujas, penance, and rituals, and the educated middle class becoming increasingly right-leaning (fundamentalist is an apter word). And this happened to an ancient conglomeration of divers that tolerated agnosticism and atheism too. Communism, which co-exists the Indian state I live in, is also nothing but an institutional religion.
    How do the liberal-democrats of other religions reconcile with institutional
    diktats — even if they are benign?

  4. Johnboy says :

    re: Rarely have I seen such a ludicrous example of a false dichotomy. <<<


    re: but concerning a general overarching idea which appears to have convinced billions of people across the globe of its truth, they might be slightly more hesitant.<<<


    The reason I agree is that Eller's dichotomy fails to recognize the distinction between an ignostic stance which would reject any given interpretation or meta-theory as logically inconsistent versus other stances which concede logical consistency but then take various evidential stances.

    The evidential stances would fallout along an epistemic continuum, just for an oversimplified example – of impossible, improbable, implausible, uncertain, possible, plausible, probable to certain. Generally, regarding meta-theoretic stances, such as regarding realities like cosmogony, speculative cosmology, quantum interpretations, abiogenesis (biopoiesis) and philosophy of mind, much less even putative primal or ultimate realities, we're dealing with logical consistencies (possibilities) coupled with uncertainties, implausibilities and plausibilities. Unless and until methodological constraints are overcome or paradigm shifts occur which then foster inductive testing, such meta-theoretic interpretations cannot be considered robustly probabilistic.

    One can then accept an interpretation as plausible, reject it as implausible, or remain agnostic and uncertain. One needn't accept a verdict of proved or disproved but may apply the Scottish verdict, not proved.

    The most vague god-conceptions of philosophical theology, coupled with the general overarching ideas, from the perspective of modern comparative theology, interreligious dialogue and religious pluralism, do seem to affirm a common vague polydoxic, pneumatological (spirit-referenced) reality — not only among and between the great traditions, but — even among indigenous religions. I point this out over against Eller's overly narrow, hege-monistic (double entendre intended) constructions of both theism and atheism and cursory dismissal of agnosticism. There's broad consensus that these philosophical interpretations are logically consistent, as logically consistent as any other cosmogony, quantum interpretation or philosophy of mind, for example.

    There's also broad philosophical consensus that such ignosticism is incoherent and cannot be substantively differentiated from logical positivism and radical empiricism, projects that were abandoned 60 years ago. In their anxiety to annihilate metaphysics, they subvert the meta-theoretic natural sciences.

    Metaphysical and theological agnosticisms remain alive and well. Atheological and theological interpretations compete and aren't a priori unreasonable. An ignostic atheism is not going to be terribly compelling to many because it's not distinguishable from defunct positivistic epistemologies.

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