What is an atheist, and how is it distinct from an agnostic?
Many different dichotomies have been proposed. Some suggest that atheists say “There are definitely no gods” while agnostics say “There might be gods, but I don’t believe in them”. Another a group of people revise that to make the agnostic say “There may or may not be gods, I’m not sure yet”.
Others suggest that agnostics say “It is impossible to know if there are gods or not”, while atheists say “I know there is no god”.
Then we get to the fourth group, probably the majority, say that atheism and agnosticism are not on a spectrum, but rather description of different things — atheists lack a belief in God, and agnostics lack absolute certainty in this belief, thus leading people to describe themselves as agnostic atheists.
The One True “Atheism”
Who’s right? Which of these various definitions of “atheism” and “agnosticism” is the most correct?
In one sense, all of them are correct. Language is a social convention, and words get their meaning from social consensus. Debating definitions is much like debating which side of the road people should drive on — it doesn’t matter, as long as everyone uses the same side consistently. The formation of definitions is not actually arbitrary, but for all practical purposes it could be, and we wouldn’t really notice much difference.
Yet all of them can be correct in another sense, because none of these definitions have yet reached a wide consensus. Among self-described atheists, nearly all of them (I know of from personal experience) refer to a “lack of belief in gods”. Nothing here about absolute certainty or there definitely being no gods, or even really anything about saying there are no gods. Just a lack of belief in gods, that’s all.
Among self-described agnostics (the ones I know of from personal experiences), I’ve seen no consistent thing in common besides, perhaps ironically, lacking a belief of gods. Every agnostic I’ve seen (so far) has been an atheist using the “lack of belief in gods” definition. In fact, many people who lack a belief in gods self-identity under a whole bunch of different labels besides atheist — such as freethinkers, skeptics, unbelievers, nonbelivers, nontheists, and even the self-congratulatory “Brights”.
I’m not going to take their label away from them, but even if they desperately don’t want to be seen as atheists, the fact remains that they still lack a belief in god. However, things get a bit more complicated than merely lacking a belief in gods or not.
Likelihoods and The Many Atheisms
First, there are many god concepts, and you can believe in some while not believing in others. For example, you might believe in a polytheistic religion and thus accept a wide multitude of god concepts, yet still not believe in every god concept — for example, believing in the entire Greek Pantheon, but not believing in Jesus, Kabezya-Mpungu, or The Flying Spaghetti Monster. Additionally, you might believe that the Christian God and the Islamic God are the same person, thus believing in both concepts, yet lack belief in the Greek Pantheon.
Second, you can do more than just have or lack belief. You could believe in the nonexistence of certain god concepts, lack belief in other god concepts, and have a belief in the existence of another group of god concepts. Likewise, this need not even be on a yes-maybe-no scale, but rather could assign likelihoods to certain concepts. For example, you could say that you are 99.9% sure that the Greek Pantheon doesn’t exist, yet only 70% sure that the Biblical God doesn’t exist.
A good analogy is that of people on trial for crimes. For each criminal, you might think her guilty, not guilty, or indeterminate. You might even assert yourself to be 95% confident in her guilt. Additionally, you could be 95% confident with that defendant, yet also find yourself only 60% sure of another, unrelated criminal.
Thus, there are really many atheisms — there are a wide variety of god concepts, and for each god concept, you may have a variety of different reactions, judging that concept to exist or not exist with a variety of probabilities.
Provisional Non-existence and The Null Hypothesis
This idea of provisional non-existence based on high (but not absolute) confidence is how we already work. What position would you take for the existence of the Greek Pantheon? I’d be more than 99.9% confident that such an entity doesn’t exist, and be willing to say “The Greek Pantheon does not exist”.
Some god concepts, like omnibenevolent gods who send people to Hell, or omnipotent gods who are incapable of sinning are actually logically impossible, and thus can be rejected with near certainty. Since the Biblical God falls into this category, I’d be willing to say “The Biblical God does not exist”.
However, a deity more abstract and disconnected, like that of classic deism — a being who created the universe in a Big Bang and left it to unfold according to natural law, and who never comes back to interfere with anything and just makes everything pretty much indistinguishable from a metaphysically naturalist universe — this kind of god concept is really hard to actually rule out. Suppose it were carefully constructed to dodge all the logical incompatibilities and tasked with never wanting to provide evidence of itself.
Could you rule out such an entity with any confidence? It feels like ruling out that you’re not in stuck the Matrix — if everything looks the same, how could you tell? Here, you might just have to lack belief rather than assert disbelief at high confidence.
Provisional Non-belief and the Courtroom Analogy
Of course, no assessment of any of these god concepts need be permanent, and indeed none should. New evidence could, theoretically, surface to demonstrate the existence of the Biblical God — Hey, Jesus himself could return! (Though I’m not holding my breath…)
That’s why this kind of assertion of nonexistence is provisional, open to later revision. It’s very similar again to the courtroom, where we might think the defendant innocent, but then police discover the murder weapon and the defendant’s fingerprints are all over it. Prior to the discovery of the murder weapon, it was most reasonable to refrain from a belief in guilt, but with the discovery, it suddenly becomes most reasonable to have a belief in guilt.
The Null Hypothesis
This kind of thinking is very similar to what is called hypothesis testing in statistics. You start out with a default position, called the null hypothesis, and then a second position called the alternative hypothesis, and together these two positions comprise all possible cases. You then look for evidence for the alternative hypothesis, and use that evidence to either reject the null hypothesis or fail to reject the null hypothesis with a certain degree of certainty.
In the courtroom, the null hypothesis is innocence (innocent until proven guilty), and the alternative hypothesis is guilty (together innocent and guilty are the only possible outcomes). We start with the null hypothesis until we get evidence for guilt (the murder weapon), and then we reject the null hypothesis, saying something like “We reject the null hypothesis with 95% confidence”, or rather “We are 95% certain the defendant is guilty”.
We can then encounter even more evidence that requires us to shift back — sure the murder weapon was a dead giveaway, but forensics found evidence that the murder weapon may have been planted there by someone who wanted to frame the defendant, and the defendant has an uncrackable alibi. We now may fail to reject the null hypothesis and no longer be certain the defendant is guilty. (Note that this is just a less formal version of Bayesian reasoning, which I need not go into because it is kind of complex and doesn’t tell you much more than I already have.)
So when I tell you I’m an atheist, what am I trying to say? Most specifically and technically, it is a whole range of probability assessments for all the god concepts I’ve currently heard (near certain nonexistence for some, mere lack of belief for others) plus an extrapolation to all god concepts (these ones I’ve heard haven’t worked, and I see no reason other god concepts would succeed) that are all provisional based on my current evidence and open for more consideration in the future.
But most generally, even the technical and specific view is best summarized as atheism being “lack of belief in gods”. Gods simply don’t feature among the things I believe exist. For every god concept, I lack a belief in it, though for many god concepts I’m willing to take the extra step and assert its nonexistence with a certain degree of confidence. As far as I can tell, agnostics pretty much do the same, though they may be less confident in their nonexistence assessments.
Followed up in: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 6: Atheism and What’s Left
Author’s Note: This is an updated replacement version of my previous essay “A-Unicornism and The True Definition of Atheism”
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