Atheism, Agnosticism and Absolutism

Absolute Certainty
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  • “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” ~José Bergamín
  • “The educated in [the critical habit of thought] are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain.” ~William Graham Sumner
  • “Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.” ~Bertrand Russell
  • “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.” ~Richard Feynman
  • “Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.” ~Voltaire
  • “Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.” ~Will Durant
  • “Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.” ~Bertrand Russell
  • “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and of many things I don’t know anything about. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things: by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose . . . which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” ~Richard Feynman
  • “One reason why mathematics enjoys special esteem, above all other sciences, is that its laws are absolutely certain and indisputable, while those of other sciences are to some extent debatable and in constant danger of being overthrown by newly discovered facts.” ~Albert Einstein

The quotes, above, are for those who claim absolute certainty of God’s existence or nonexistence. Think about them.

No matter which freethinker discussion group I visit, it seems there’s always a thread debating agnosticism versus atheism. There’s always divergent views about the meanings of these two words. To me, the apparent confusion stems from ambiguous word usage. It should be noted that dictionaries don’t define words for us: they merely reflect how we use words. Lexicographers write dictionary definitions according to the actual usage of words. So, if they are ambiguous in actual usage, dictionaries will reflect this ambiguity. But what is NOT ambiguous is the etymology of these two words. The root of the word, ‘agnosticism’, means ‘knowledge’. The root of the word, ‘atheism’, means ‘belief’. By adhering to what we know, unambiguously, about these two words (their etymologies), we can more easily and clearly distinguish them.

Etymologically, agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. One can be both. In fact, I’d dare say most atheists are ‘agnostic atheists’.

Atheism claims a lack of belief in God. That’s all. It’s about belief . Belief involves subjective claims and opinions.

Agnosticism claims a lack of knowledge of God. That’s all. It’s about knowledge. Knowledge involves objective facts and conclusions.

Atheism is a subjective (belief) claim. Agnosticism is an objective (knowledge) claim. I lack knowledge of God and I lack belief in God. I am atheist by subjective opinion. I am agnostic by objective conclusion.

I would happily believe in God if solid evidence for him ever surfaced but I think the odds of that ever happening are vanishingly remote. Until physical evidence of God’s existence or nonexistence surfaces, rational integrity dictates that I have no logical basis for certainty either way. So my agnosticism is absolute but my atheism isn’t: I am 100% certain I lack knowledge of God but my lack of belief is only 99.99% certain. Personally, I lack belief in God because all evidence points to natural – NOT supernatural – causes.

God, as a concept, is a meme that can’t be proved or disproved: there simply is no substantive information from which to draw an informed conclusion – much less, certainty.

Addendum:

Technically, we really should first clarify what we mean by the word ‘God’. In the West, we usually mean the personal, revealed, monotheistic, God of Abraham. The Abrahamic God is the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Alternatively, we might mean the impersonal, absentee, cosmic, god of deists or pantheists. The Abrahamic God is (allegedly) revealed through divinely inspired scripture: the Hebrew Bible; the Christian Bible; and the Quran. For their respective religions, these scripture are the inerrant, immutable, Word of God. The cosmic god of deists and pantheists, on the other hand, is amorphous. We don’t really know anything about him. He has no scripture to inform us of him.

If, for the sake of argument, we pretend that God is truly revealed by his scripture(s), then we can easily conclude that the God of scripture is absolutely false: contradictory and incoherent. This is virtually as good as proving he does not exist. But the amorphous god of deists and pantheists is another matter entirely. Without any information to go on, we can’t reach a conclusion about him: much less, an absolute one.

So, for me, when I think of agnosticism and atheism, I’m thinking of the amorphous god of deists and pantheists: NOT the revealed god of theists, who, on the authority of his own scripture, CAN’T be real . . . so, logically, I must discount him.

 

© Copyright 2012 AtheistExile.com

eMail: AtheistExile@AtheistExile.com


 

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