Are you a Gnostic Atheist or an Agnostic Atheist?

Another discussion posed the question, do you:

A. disbelieve in gods? or

B. believe there are no gods?


The subtle distinction here seems to be whether you think we can know that there are no such things as gods, or whether you think we can't ever really know such a thing, but you nevertheless think that there aren't such things.


I prefer to ask the question in the more direct way then. Are you:

A. a Gnostic Atheist, or

B. an Agnostic Atheist?


Surely this question matters, and in the interests of full disclosure I am a Gnostic Atheist, with the qualifier that I do not think that absolute knowledge of anything can really be had, but rather that if we can know anything at all, we can know there are no such things as gods as surely as we can know that there are such things as cows and pigs and people and stars and viruses and rivers and such (all things we have plenty of evidence for), and as surely as we can know that there are not such things as leprechauns and unicorns and cyclops and fairies and hobbits and flying spaghetti monsters 9all things for which there is absolutely no evidence).

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You can know that a thing or condition is, but I don't see how you could know with absolute certainty that it is not, or could not be.  If knowlege about the thing or condition called God is placed on a scale from 0 (absolutely is not) to 1 (absolutely is), when it approaches 0 we pick some point at which we just go ahead and treat it as if it were 0.  So I don't know whether I can know if there are gods, but I'm as certain that there are not that it makes no difference if I treat it as absolute certainty.  Point being, there is an arbitrary point at which we each choose to just go ahead and make the call.  The farther that point is from either end of the spectrum, the more susceptible we are to having our beliefs overturned by evidence.



Yes. This applies to any belief. Can you know with absolute certainty that you have two hands? No, but you can be so reasonably assured of it (assuming of course you are not an amputee or something, in which case, just choose something else obviously the case) and its truth so obviously assured that absolute certainty is moot - knowledge is gained and you are no longer suspending judgment on the case. I.e., you have completely made up your mind as to what you should believe. This is the position that I call Gnostic Atheism. It is perfectly consistent with reasonable doubt, which in the case of such things as gods or other obviously-true or false beliefs, is so small (or large, depending on which way you look at it) we do as you suggest - we treat the odds as if they were 1 or 0.

I struggle with this question on a regular basis. It is an easy thing to say you either believe or disbelieve in god(s). The part I trip over is the agnosticism aspect, finding myself at odds with the proposed definition of agnosticism. I'm sure that provokes a lot of eyerolling in those who are tired of the definition game.

I just do not see how a definition of agnosticism can state that something is unknowable. Don't you have to know everything in order to know what you can't know? This is contradictory and I believe it should be abandoned. A god, by definition, has a supernatural aspect to its existence. We can't comment on the supernatural as it is beyond our reach. In my opinion, agnosticism should be restrained to state that satisfactory knowledge of a subject is insufficient to draw a conclusion. We do this all the time in our daily lives, why should this subject be any different.

Based on that, I would say I am an agnostic atheist.

If I am rusty on the subject and misunderstanding something, please let me know. If convinced I will gladly change my answer.

As far as your assertion that "we can't comment on the supernatural as it is beyond our reach", I would make two counterarguments. First, the only reason we believe in anything like the supernatural (and by "we" I simply mean people) is because people have imagined there to be something like it. We have no actual experience of the supernatural, no evidence exists, and, so far as we know, there is no such thing. So we can comment on it at least on the level of the kinds of things that we can imagine. Which brings me to my second argument, which is that we can imagine a great many things, besides deities, that we can assign any number of fantastical attributes to, including "supernaturality". Does this exempt these "beings" from our being able to comment on them, whereas beings that we do not assign this quality to we can know whether or not they exist? So, on this criteria, the class of supernatural beings like ghosts or angels or demons or demigods, etc., we must withhold judgment as to whether they exist, but the class of beings that are merely fantastical and imaginary but are not assigned the attribute of supernaturality, like unicorns or leprechauns or hobbits or trolls or elves or fairies, we are at liberty to dismiss these beings as possibly existing? If you agree to this distinction, then you are saying nothing more than that if we imagine a creature to exist in a certain way, then it might really exist, whereas if we imagine it to exist in some other way then we can know that it exists only in our imagination. But I think you will agree with me that this is absurd. So you must agree that simply assigning supernaturality to the figments of our imagination does nothing to make it more probable that they might really exist. Therefore there is no distinction between the first and second class of beings. If you agree with me on this much, then I think you must also agree that it is equally absurd to suspend our judgment as to the existence of flying spaghetti monsters and wizards and hobgoblins as it is to suspend our judgment as to the existence of supernatural beings. How can any of these creatures of the imagination be elevated to the point of our being insufficiently justified in dismissing them outright?

I guess I would consider myself agnostic atheist; I agree that there is no distinction, I suppose, between supernatural beings and fantastic, imaginary, but not necessarily supernatural creatures. They are equally unlikely, but they are also equally impossible to disprove. So while I don't believe that they exist, I allow for the possibility that they do.

What it comes down to is epistemological creativity -- being able to entertain different theories even if you believe in one over another. I think we could all agree that most religions take numerous leaps of faith that are illogical. However, I think anyone would have a hard time refuting, say, idealism, over empiricism. After all, everything we know of the world passes through our senses, and our knowledge of the world is limited by how our brain interprets this information.

A perfect example would be as in the movie The Matrix. If you were plugged in The Matrix, without the red pill, it would be impossible for you to know whether the reality as you know it is "real".

Likewise, even though I trust in the scientific method to help expand our empirical knowledge of the world, I recognize philosophically that science has limits. The algorithms with The Matrix might have some kind of logical consistency, for example, but they are not natural.

When you say it is absurd, you are right, it is absurd


At this point... secular american atheist robot.. kyaghpeesh!?

aka just another strong atheist that wondered about god as a child for about a year or two tops (art got to me first) ; )

all about that influence folks!

and i know that this day and age.. in this species point in the timeline of 200k years.. oh wait.. 20K? ; )
I be:
freethinker |ˈfrēˈθi ng kər|
a person who rejects accepted opinions, esp. those concerning religious belief.

If gnosticism (certain knowledge) is part of the equation, then I am an agnostic atheist.  Human knowledge is provisional and we always need to be open to the possibility of being wrong.  This is the qualifier you gave, but for me it is not something one puts out as a proviso, especially given most people's understanding of scientific and humanistic knowledge.

If I am a gnostic atheist, and am operating from a basis of reason, then I KNOW god does not exist, and have picked up the burden of evidence.  Usually not a good position to be in when demonstrating non-existence.

Of course a lot depends on how god is being defined.  Some conceptions of god are logically contradictory and one can be gnostic about those purely on deductive grounds. 

This was an excellent response, and it took me a little while to come up with a decent response. Here it is. What my position is as a Gnostic Atheist is that of having nearly certain knowledge. This is the same claim we can make about anything which we purportedly know. Do we know that evolution is true? Or that gravity exists? Or that we exist? Sure we do. We don't have absolute, completely certain knowledge of these things or of anything whatsoever. Suppose I take up the position that I have two hands, and you ask me to prove it. I then hold up hand one and hand two. Ah, you say, but you could really be a brain in a vat, with scientists poking your brain and only making you think that you have two hands and that everything you see is real. Can you prove that you are not a brain in a vat? No, I respond, I cannot, but I don't really think that I have to to know that I am not, and that I do indeed have two hands and that the world is at it seems to me. Now tell me, where is the burden of evidence? Is it on me to prove that I am not a brain in a vat? I should think not. The burden of evidence belongs with the person making the extraordinary claims. So, just like I don't need evidence to prove I am not a brain in a vat, I do not think I need to produce evidence that there is no god to know that there isn't one, because it is such an extraordinary claim and so far outside what reason and evidence demonstrate about the way the world is that the burden of evidence is on the person who believes in a deity to demonstrate how this absurd belief might possibly be justified. And by saying you don't really know that they are living in a fantasy, you give them permission to believe whatever they want, so long as you can't prove them wrong. Is this really the limits of our reasoning? We should instead be telling them that their beliefs are absurd, and that no rational person could believe them, not that they could be right after all.

I don't disagree with anything you are saying, but we do have differences of emphasis.  Plus I think you may see empirical agnosticism as more wishy-washy than it is. 

One question here is what we do with the little bit of doubt that makes us nearly rather than absolutely certain in our knowledge.  Most atheist are knowledgeable enough that you can accept that little bit of doubt as a given when defining your position, but that is not the case among theists or your average person.  For them, science PROVES, knowledge is CERTAIN.   You usually need to have that acknowledgement of doubt in the foreground. 

The other reason I claim agnosticism is the trickiness of proving general non-existence.  You can show you have two hands far more easily than you can show there's no teapot beyond Mars. 

I agree with almost everything you say about where the burden of evidence lies.  I would only point out that the burden of proof lies with the person making the claim, whether the claim is extraordinary or not. 

Following from that, for me the line between agnosticism and gnosticism is not degree of disbelief, but is the point at which one feels comfortable picking up the burden of evidence.   An agnostic atheist has no burden.  A gnostic does.  You have probably noticed that the first thing a theist will do on finding out you are an atheist is try to shift the burden of evidence on to you by asking how you KNOW there is no god.  If you claim to be gnostic, then you would have to pick up that burden.  Me, I am too damn lazy.  They can do the work. 


Hah, well if it comes down to you just being “too damn lazy” then I accept your agnosticism. As it stands, I don't mind picking up the burden of proof to argue for my knowledge of the nonexistence of gods or teapots beyond Mars or any other absurd proposition, so long as it is understood that absolute proof is not necessary or required for knowledge. If the theist is not aware that there is this skeptical qualifier in the background, then it is 1. their own damn fault for being ignorant, and 2. an argument I am willing to make. It does take a little foray into epistemology, which I am happy to do for the sake of enlightening someone. Which brings me to your point that “ You can show you have two hands far more easily than you can show there's no teapot beyond Mars”. Actually, epistemologically, you can't. Not, that is, if you accept the proposition that anything like absolute proof or absolutely certain knowledge is required to demonstrate knowledge. But this is an impossibly high standard, because as we have seen, we can no more make that claim about having two hands than we can about anything. This is why you do not have to prove the non-existence of a thing in order to have justified, reasonably-assured knowledge in its non-existence. And nor is it the case that the burden of proof lies with the person making any claim, extraordinary or not. For example, I don't have to prove that all men are mortal; this is far from an extraordinary claim, in fact it is quite an ordinary claim, but if I was asked to prove it and the standard of proof was impossibly high, requiring absolute proof, I couldn't possibly provide it. I couldn't prove anything by that standard. All I need to argue is that 1. any claim made with no evidence of any sort even being possible is justifiably dismissed, and 2. even if some evidence is not only possible to be shown but is shown for any proposition, if the overwhelming weight of the evidence is all off to the other side of the issue, then it is at least possible, depending on the claim I suppose, that we can know that the supposed counter-evidence is misleading or can actually support the opposite claim, etc., and that we might really know (depending on how strict you want to draw the lines around this concept) it to be wrong. What is true, I'm sure you will agree, is that defining knowledge is no cake-walk. My argument is that on any reasonable definition of knowledge, one that does not ask for absolute proof and thus set the standard for knowledge impossibly high, rendering all beliefs merely opinions, the weight of the arguments are so lopsidedly on the side of there being no gods (made even more lopsided by the fact that there is zero evidence for there being any) that it is virtually certain that there aren't any, and that this qualifies as knowledge by a margin which is so long and far and deep that no reasonable and moderately-informed person could believe in gods. So you see, I am not lazy about making this case for Gnostic Atheism, because I firmly believe that Agnostic Atheism does the theists a huge favor, and this is not a favor I am willing to do for them.

A lot of your response is about how "absolute proof," is unreasonable, and we agree.  We both accept debate over theism takes place within the limitations of humanist knowledge, so no-one is arguing for a absolute proof or objectively certain knowledge (regardless of how we might feel about that knowledge subjectively). The limitations on humanist knowledge have more to with practical problems like induction than, say, radical skepticism about reality. 

Given that, I do have to insist that demonstrating general non-existence is a tricky problem and, yes, that it is in fact easier to show (i.e. provide evidence) that you have two hands than it is to show that there is no teapot beyond Mars. 

I also have to insist that the person making the claim is the one stuck with the burden of evidence.  I mean, what evidence could a person NOT making a claim conceivably be responsible for? "That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence" is simply a statement of where burden of evidence lies. You actually give a variation of this, although I think you set an unreasonably high standard for dismissing a claim ("no evidence of any sort even being possible")--you don't need to argue that future evidence is impossible to dismiss a claim. 

I am also sticking with the line between agnostic and gnostic atheism being that gnostic atheists are making a claim ("there is no god") and, since they are making a claim, are stuck with a burden of evidence for that claim.  Note there is nothing here about absolute certainty or impossibly high standards of proof.  Simply, if you make a claim you need to present evidence or be dismissed.

Which means I disagree that agnostic atheists are doing theists a huge favour. I don't see how that logically follows, and empirically it doesn't hold. Some of the most effective proponents of atheism right now profess agnosticism about the existence of god(s). An agnostic position is in fact the more effective strategy, since it focuses the debate on the weakness of the arguments FOR the existence of god.  Professing a gnostic position will automatically put you on the defensive. 


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