Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Theism, Atheism, and Agnosticism: A Taxonomy of Belief

Bethel and UW - Milwaukee graduate John Grandits writes about distinguishing varieties of theism, atheism, and agnosticism.

A friend of mine was recently walking in a park in San Diego and came across a local atheist group selling t-shirts and Skeptic magazine. They also had a banner that read, "Ask an atheist a question. You might like the answer." My friend, a philosophy graduate student, took the bait. I'm not sure what questions he asked, but he told me that the group of six atheists ended up unanimously endorsing a position that embraced both agnosticism and atheism. They told him, "Agnosticism has to do with knowledge, whereas atheism has to do with belief," to which my friend responded "Huh?"

The confusion that my friend felt is also the confusion that I notice among many people when they get in debates about theism, atheism, and agnosticism. Some people claim to "lack belief in God" while others say they "believe that God does not exist" while some label themselves as agnostic atheists or agnostic theists. This is all very confusing. So what is the difference between these positions?

To answer this question, I think it's helpful to talk in terms of attitudes toward the proposition "God exists." Generally speaking, for any proposition P, you can either believe P, believe not-P, or neither. If we apply this to "God exists," there are those that believe that God exists (P), those who believe that God does not exist (not-P), and those who neither believe that God exists nor that God does not exist (neither P nor not-P). I think it's appropriate to call these theists, atheists, and agnostics, respectively.

So what are we to make of the atheists in the park who claim to be agnostic atheists? How is this not a contradiction? I think the implicit distinction they have in mind is between one's attitude toward P and one's attitude toward whether one knows that P. For instance, if I believe that P, I can go on to claim to know that P, claim to not know P, or neither. That is, if I am a theist, then, regarding the proposition "I know that P"--call this KP--I can believe KP, believe not-KP, or neither believe KP nor not-KP. Likewise, if I am an atheist, then, regarding the proposition "I know that not-P"--call this KnP--I can believe KnP, believe not-KnP, or neither. On this view, an agnostic atheist is one who believes not-P (this is what makes him an atheist) but he neither believes KnP nor not-KnP (this is what makes him an agnostic). The following table attempts to fill in the rest of the logical space:

Believe KP/KnP
Believe not-KP/KnP
Neither KP/Knp nor not-KP/KnP
Believe P
Strong theism
Weak theism
Agnostic theism
Believe not-P
Strong atheism
Weak atheism
Agnostic atheism
Neither P nor not-P
Agnosticism Proper?
Agnosticism Proper?

So I think part of the confusion over these issues results from a failure to make this distinction between one's attitude toward P and one's attitude toward one’s knowledge that P. Further confusion results from the fact that agnosticism is sometimes defined, not as the (negative) position in which one neither believes P nor not-P, but as the (positive) belief that knowledge about P is impossible. However, on the way I have set things up, this kind of agnosticism would be a subcategory of those in the second column in the table above, i.e. those who have the more general belief that they do not know P. That is, out of all the persons who believe that they do not know P, there will be those who believe that knowledge about P is impossible and those who believe it is possible. The latter of these may believe they don't know P because, say, they believe that the evidence isn't sufficient for knowledge, even if it could be.

There are also other subcategories that a comprehensive taxonomy would need to include. For instance, out of all the persons who are properly agnostic, there will be those who have never thought about or considered P and those who have. Those who have never thought about or considered P could be further divided into further subcategories, e.g. between those who have never heard of, conceived of, or properly understood P and those who have but have never taken the time to reflect on P.

I'm not sure all of this is correct, but I think this is a useful way to start thinking about our differing attitudes, not only about the existence of God, but about any given proposition.

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