Tag Archive | Agnosticism

Studying the Nonreligious, and the Marginalisation of the Nonreligious in the Academic Study of Religion

A few months ago, I started thinking about the relationship between ‘nonreligion’ and ‘inequality’ for a conference presentation I had to write, and a number of things came to mind. Of course there is the dominant popular and media discourse portraying secularist uproar over prayers at town council meetings, the teaching of Creationism in schools, or the visible battles which have been waged on buses, billboards and car bumpers in recent years. Stephen Bullivant rightly states that ‘…popular and media discourse surrounding atheism and unbelief tends to be overly simplistic and unhelpful, often focusing on the perceived ‘arrogance’ or ‘aggressiveness’ of unbelievers (depicted as a homogeneous group)’[1]. However, it is to an inequality which is less visible to which I turn: I wish to quickly show that there is a historical inequality present in the academic study of religion, in terms of the marginalisation of the nonreligious as an appropriate subject ‘group’ for study… and then provide reasons for an academic study of ‘nonreligion’.

I should begin by emphasising that this is a steadily improving situation. I have presented papers in recent months at panel sessions at SOCREL, EASR and SSSR conferences [these are a big deal]where it was standing-room only. Two key research groups have been established in the past decade – the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, Massachusetts, and the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN); these two groups also joined together to launch the journal Secularism and Nonreligon in August 2011; the recent edition of the Journal of Contemporary Religion focused entirely on the nonreligious; and the NSRN Bibliography (which I manage) contained [the last time I checked] over 480 scholarly books and articles on atheism, secularity, nonreligion and related topics (360 since 2005).

However, things have not always been so encouraging. Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee do an excellent job of tracing the history of research into the nonreligious in their recent Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union. There they trace a historical neglect of ‘nonreligion’ to the non-religiosity of many of the social sciences’ early pioneers who, in trying to understand why so many people could believe in something “so absurd”, “arguably failed to recognize that their own lack of belief might itself be amenable to similar research” [2]. They also point to extensive interest in the anomaly of unbelief from Catholic social scientists throughout the 1950s and 1960s. From either camp, therefore, it is understandable that:

“Much of the early research that mentions the nonreligious has included nonreligious individuals as a comparison group, a statistical outlier, or an afterthought [or, indeed, as a problem to be dealt with]. Rarely has the aim of most existing research been to explore the lives, experiences, and characteristics of the nonreligious” [3].

“Low religiosity” is, as Frank Pasquale states, a “relative measure based on self-reports”. “Its meaning shifts with the nature of the underlying sample” [4] and the branding of those who are nonreligious as having “low religiosity” tells us little about what their nonreligiosity actually means to them. ‘As a result, terminology used to refer to the nonreligious in the social science of religion has often been ambiguous, imprecise, and even “biased and derogatory.”[5] One does not have to look very far to find examples of such work – here are just a couple from my recent reading:

  • ‘…religious behaviour is […] founded on the distinction of sacred and profane experience. The nonreligious person, conversely, is one for whom there is nothing sacred or holy’ [6];
  • ‘In the absence of religion, people tend to believe anything rather than nothing…’[7].

[A relevant footnote to this discussion would be, of course, the obvious point that the study of secularisation is not the study of the nonreligious…]

But why should scholars of religion be interested in the nonreligious anyway? I’ve come up with three reasons so far…

The Nonreligious Majority?

In his survey of the findings from recent surveys (2007), Phil Zuckerman found that ‘“nonbelievers in God” as a group actually come in fourth place (500-750 million) – after Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.2 billion), and Hinduism (900 million)’[8], far outnumbering other groupings such as Jews and Mormons. If other smaller groups are deemed worthy of differentiated scholarly attention, then it is only appropriate that this same curiosity be extended to those who cannot be described, or do not self-describe, as ‘religious’.

Unlike the US where nonreligious individuals remain a very small (yet growing) population, it is increasingly being shown that being ‘nonreligious’ is a very significant minority position in the UK, if not an overall majority. Drawing on a variety of sources, Zuckerman gives estimates of between 10 and 44 percent of the UK population being ‘nonreligious’ (dependent upon how ‘nonreligious’ is defined)[9]. In addition, 53.4 percent of British respondents to the European Values Survey question stated that they were ‘not a religious person’[10]. Whilst I would contend that the majority of these studies provide insufficient understandings of ‘nonreligiosity’ – due to narrow, one-dimensional quantitative measures – these observations demonstrate that a significant proportion of (particularly British – my context) people can potentially be classified as ‘nonreligious’, and are worthy of attention simply by virtue of their sheer number, if for no other reason.

The Nonreligious Monolith

As Timothy Fitzgerald contends, the study of ‘religion’ has largely been built upon something which is seen as ‘distinctive and separate and requir[ing] special departments and methodologies for its study’[11]. This religion can be conceived in a number of ways[12]: simply and equivocally as ‘Christian’ religion; in a ‘normative’ fashion – where pervasive general understandings of ‘religion’ exclude ‘superstitious’ practices and ‘minority’, ‘high-demand’ or ‘exclusive’ groups from being considered ‘really’ religious; and the ‘secularist’conception which labels certain acts ‘religious’ and others ‘secular’, carving up the social order in a particular way. A common theme throughout these approaches is that they are designed to exclude ‘inappropriate’ areas of study. Consequently, as suggested above, the majority of studies designed to study religion are ‘often of little use for studying its lack’ or opposite[13].  In addition, studies which do acknowledge the nonreligious tend to pay them little attention, or treat them as a monolithic minority religious position – religious ‘nones’– alongside other minority groups.

The phenomenon of nonreligion encapsulates a wide variety of positions. According to Frank Pasquale – writing, in this case, about the terms ‘atheism’ and ‘secularity’:

There are [also] other windows into this domain, each with a distinctive slant, such as irreligion, religious doubt, unbelief or nonbelief, freethought, agnosticism, (secular) humanism, rationalism, materialism, philosophical naturalism, and (religious) scepticism…[14]

Even this comparatively comprehensive list of ‘windows’ omits the term ‘bright’, which was officially coined in 2003, and famously evangelised by Daniel Dennett (2003), to describe ‘a person with a naturalistic worldview, […] free of mystical and supernatural elements’[15]. It also omits individuals who may be reluctant to label themselves with a nonreligious term[16], or the truly indifferent who ‘find religion to be so irrelevant […that they are] not even conscious of […rejecting] it’[17]. The purpose of this enumeration was not to focus upon these different nonreligious types, but to demonstrate the unjustifiable tendency – where the nonreligious are even considered at all – to see the nonreligious as a unified monolith, whilst simultaneously opening up the ‘religious’ category to minute degrees of nuance.

The Study of Religion

Finally, I wish to make two key points which justify the study of nonreligion from the perspective of Religious Studies: using nonreligion to test the perceived universality of religion, and the foundation of the study of religion in the study of people.

Beginning once again with Timothy Fitzgerald, there is an unfortunate but prevalent tendency for

…many academics in history, anthropology, or religious studies [to] use […‘religion’] generically as though [it] is universal in time and place… [18]

Many scholars ‘presume that [the term ‘religion’] points to pre-social and thus universal sentiments’[19]. Even within the cutting-edge cognitive science of religion, one of the most frequent and heated debates concerns whether human beings are innately religious. Whilst this universalising tendency receives some attention in scholarly works, objections to it are generally framed in terms of misrepresentation of the specificities of (mainly non-Western) religions, through the application of ‘modern Western concepts […or] borrowing a few concepts […] from other cultures’[20]. What these critiques ignore, is the argument that whilst

It is probably true… that there is no human society which totally lacks cultural patterns that we can call religious […]. It is surely untrue that all men in all societies are, in any meaningful sense of the term, religious.[21]

Secondly, flowing throughout the extensive scholarly disagreement on how to define religion is a common denominator that religion is a social phenomenon. This phenomenon can be traced to:a particular type of conversation; a distinctive part of human nature; something in which people place ‘unrestricted value’[22]; any number of ‘ideas, symbols, feelings, practices and organisations’[23]; or some sort of transcendent ‘Focus’[24]. However, the unifying factor throughout these approaches is, quite simply, people – and this holds even for scholars who would make a transcendent, meta-empirical focus the key element. The demarcation of this ‘Focus’ as a central concern of religion makes no judgement on whether that presupposition is ‘true’ and, according to this method’s advocates, ‘it is necessary to describe [a particular people’s] interplay with the environment, and also with their ‘supernatural’ environment’ in order to adequately understand them[25].

These observations hopefully demonstrate that one of the central foci of Religious Studies is human beings – and this includes the nonreligious. Even if some sort of ‘supernatural’ element is prioritised, those who are classified as ‘nonreligious’ either engage with this through rejection, or through raising questions about its importance through their non-engagement. In either scenario they remain valid subjects for Religious Studies.  Engaging with the nonreligious helps academics both to ‘understand better the role of faith in modern society’[26], and to appropriately engage with people, in groups or on their own, who consciously or unconsciously live without religion.

Now, I am not contending that every study needs to focus upon the nonreligious… or that the nonreligious need to be more than a footnote. However, they do need to be a footnote. If scholars wish to focus exclusively on religious groups, they need to justify why this is worthwhile. If they want to read in religiosity into everything – be this homo religiosus, invisible religion, implicit religion, everyday religion – then they need to provide robust reasons why, and explain what they are doing when they read religion into the lives of those among whom it is not visible on many or all standard measures.

[1] ‘Teaching Atheism and Nonreligion: Challenges and Opportunities’, Discourse 10, no. 2 (2011): 3.

[2] Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee, ‘Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27, no. 1 (2012): 20.

[3] in Frank L. Pasquale, ‘The Social Science of Secularity’, Free Inquiry 33, no. 2 (2012): 17–23.

[4] Frank L. Pasquale, ‘Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect Of’, in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, ed. Tom Flynn (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007), 764.

[5] R. Cragun and J.H. Hammer, ‘“One Person”s Apostate Is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us About Pro-religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion’, Humanity and Society 35 (2011): 159–175.

[6] William E. Paden, Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 48–49; cited in Terence Thomas, ‘“The Sacred” as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions’, in Religion: Empirical Studies, ed. Steven J. Sutcliffe (Surrey: Ashgate, 2004), 51.

[7] M. Percy, ‘Losing Our Space, Finding Our Place’, in Religion, Identity and Change, ed. S. Coleman and P. Collins (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 39.

[8] Phil Zuckerman, 2010. Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. New York: New York University Press, p. 96.

[9] Zuckerman, Phil. 2007. Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns. In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, 47-65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 49.

[10] Weller, Paul. 2008. Religious Diversity in the UK: Contours and Issues. London: Continuum, p. 51

[11] Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2000a. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3.

[12] Sutcliffe, Steven. 2010. Paper: Religion – What Are We Talking About? (Launch of the Religion and Society – Edinburgh Network [RASEN]). In RASEN. University of Edinburgh, October 25.

[13] Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (3): 363-368, p. 364

[14] Pasquale, Frank L. 2010. A Portrait of Secular Group Affiliates. In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 43-87. Santa Barbara: Praeger, p. 43.

[16] Bullivant 2008, 364

[17] Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan, p. 39.

[18] Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 46.

[19] McCutcheon, Russell T. 2007. “‘They Licked the Platter Clean’: On the Co-Dependency of the Religious and the Secular.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 19: 173-199, p. 182.

[20] Platvoet, Jan G. 1999. To Define or Not to Define: The Problem of the Definition of Religion. In The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests, ed. Jan G. Platvoet and Arie L. Molendijk, 245-265. Leiden: Brill, 250-51

[21] Geertz, Clifford. 1968. Religion as a Cultural System. In The Religious Situation, ed. Donald R. Cutler, 639-688. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 664.

[22] Cox, James L. 1996. Expressing the Sacred: An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion. 2nd ed. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications, p. 15.

[23] Beckford, James A. 2003. Social Theory and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 2.

[24] Smart, Ninian. 1973. The Phenomenon of Religion. New York: Seabury, p. 57.

[25] Smart, Ninian. 1973. The Phenomenon of Religion. New York: Seabury, p. 68.

[26] Bainbridge, William Sims. 2005. “Atheism.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 1: 1-24, p.1.

What’s the Point of Atheist Temples?

Pretty much my thoughts exactly…

Recovering Agnostic

Alain de Botton wants to build an “atheist temple” in London. This has a connection with some of the issues I dealt with recently around whether you could have ritual without religion, and whether similar or even identical forms and structures could be used without the religious element. I think it’s possible and reasonable, but despite that, and although I have a lot of sympathy with his preference for a positive, uplifting message, I can’t see any sense in de Botton’s proposal.

I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the building would be – de Botton explicitly calls it an atheist temple, and wants to show the positive side of atheism, but all the detail of the plans – the specifically designed height, the fossils, the human genome sequence – makes it sound more like a freeform science museum, containing nothing, as far as I can see, that…

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Nonreligion Panel at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ Conference, Budapest, 19 September

After a successful (I hope) first presentation at the British Association for the Study of Religions’ Conference in Durham this week, this is where I am off to next week:

New Movements in Religion, 10th EASR Conference, 18-22. September 2011. Budapest, Hungary
Location: Hungarian Culture Foundation, Budapest, Szentháromság tér 6.
See www. easr10.eu for more info.

Monday, 19. September 09.00 – 11.00 (Room: “Lecture I”)
Non-Religiosity, Identity and Ritual  Chair: Kovács, Ábrahám

  • Cotter, Christopher R.,: “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students”
  • Mastiaux, Björn: “Non-Religious Identity and Attitudes toward Ritual of Members of Atheist / Secularist Organizations in Germany and the United States”
  • Catto, Rebecca and Eccles, Janet: “Investigating Young People in Britain’s Active Non-Religious Identities”
  • McKearney, Patrick: “What are you laughing at?” The Role of Ridicule in Non-religious Identity Formation”
  • Quack, Johannes: “From Antyesti to Organ Transplantation: The Secularisation of Death in India (in Comparison to Developments in Europe)”
  • Aechtner, Rebecca and Wesser, Grit: “Jugendweihe: A Non-religious Coming-of-age Ritual in Eastern Germany”

Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students

It is six weeks until  submit my 25,000 word MSc by Research thesis. Thank goodness I now have a title and an abstract…

Here it is, for your enjoyment:

Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students

This thesis details the outcomes of a small-scale research project into a relatively new and under-researched field. The aim was qualitatively to map out the different types of nonreligiosity articulated by some nonreligious students at the University of Edinburgh. Beginning by demarcating the concept of ‘nonreligion’ around which the study revolves, the author outlines: first, why such a study is necessary and worthwhile; second, the specific theoretical questions to which the study is directed; and third, the specific relevance of studying nonreligion within Religious Studies. In approaching the subject in this way, this study calls into question the reified dichotomy between religion and nonreligion, expands what the author calls the ‘nonreligious monolith’ and questions ideas of religious universality. The specifics of this study are detailed at length. Particular focus is given to the suitability of a Scottish university student population as a subject-group, and to the methodology employed, which uses electronic questionnaires and in-depth interviews to elicit unscripted narratives from selected participants. The author demonstrates that current typologies based on internally and/or externally selected and defined nonreligious identity labels, tend to be inadequate and inaccurate. Nonreligious students are shown to be highly aware of the subjectivity of their interpretations of key identity terms, and in many cases they maintain multiple identities simultaneously, in a situational and pragmatic fashion. These identities also vary in terms of concreteness and salience, and are informed by a wide variety of relationship- and education-based subjective experiences. A more nuanced approach is then proposed, based on the questionnaire and interview evidence, categorising individuals according to the overarching narrative through which they claim to interact with (non)religion. The thesis concludes by returning to the initial motivating questions – particularly concerning the reified status given to (non)religion  in traditional representations – and calling for future research investment in order to continue fleshing-out the nonreligious field, and for a continued movement away from attempts to explain nonreligion from a perspective of normative religiosity.

Flatlanders and the Proofs for the Existence of God

I read this a while ago and knew that I had to share it with the world. It comes from a summary of Edwin Abbot’s 1884 Flatland by Michael Shermer where he tells the story of how a square, living in ‘Flatland’ – a 2-dimensional world – meets a circle who has some very strange ideas.

The circle tells him that there are actually other dimensions… another reality where shapes have 3 dimensions rather than 2. This makes no sense to the square… and eventually the circle (Sphere) unceremoniously grabs the square and pulls him into his own 3-dimensional world. Where the square is now a cube.

The cube then asks if there is another dimension… a place where everything has 4-dimensions rather than three. This reasoning is met with indignation by the Sphere. How ridiculous is a world where there are 4 dimensions?

Shermer continues, taking the story to its conclusion with the proofs for the existence of God:

“Like the Cube’s impudent challenge to use the Sphere’s own analogies to argue for yet a higher dimension [4-dimensions], the proofs of God can themselves be used to consider the possibility of another being still higher, ad infinitum. Like the two dimensional Flatlanders who could not grasp the nature of three-dimensionality despite ironclad logic and reasoning, God’s existence or nonexistence cannot possibly be understood in human terms. What cannot be understood, cannot be proved. What is unprovable is insoluble.”

Shermer, Michael. 1999. How we Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman, p. 15

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.

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