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Theism, Atheism, and Agnosticism

I want to be precise in how I am going to use a few words, so let’s get to that straight away. By “theist,” I mean a person who believes in a god or gods. “Atheist” has two senses that I will handle in this way: A “weak atheist” is a person who does not hold the belief that there exists a god or gods; a “strong atheist” is a person who believes there is neither a god nor gods. These are not the same thing. For instance, all infants are weak atheists since they do not specifically believe in the existence of supernatural beings; since they also do not specifically believe that there is no god or gods, they are not strong atheists. By “agnosticism” I mean the school of thought that holds that the existence of a god or gods is not a definitively decidable issue. That is, an agnostic believes there cannot be a proof one way or the other settling the question of the existence of a supernatural being or beings (since agnosticism requires a positive belief regarding the proof or disproof of the existence of a deity or deities, infants cannot properly be called agnostics). Thus, an agnostic may be a theist, a weak atheist, or a strong atheist. Agnosticism concerns itself with the existence of existence proofs, not the existence of a deity or deities. We may note that any Christian who believes that belief in his or her God requires a “leap of faith” is both a theist and an agnostic. These definitions fit well with what one finds in dictionaries, but it is best to be clear since not everyone uses these terms in this way.

Before a person can coherently describe him- or herself as a theist, a weak or strong atheist, or an agnostic (and we have seen these terms overlap), our subject must be clear on what is meant by “god.” Surely before one may claim “I believe there is an X,” “I do not believe there is an X,” “I believe there is not an X,” or “I believe the existence of X can (or cannot) be shown,” X must be well-defined. I have no intention of trying to give a one-size-fits-all definition of “god” here. One may reasonably talk about the gods of Classical Greece or Rome, the Nordic gods, a deistic god, Allah, or the gods of Hinduism, just to name a few. One definition plainly does not cover all eventualities, at least as far as theism, atheism, and agnosticism with respect to these gods is concerned.

If there is a god, I have no idea what it is like. Not a clue. Having only experience with the natural (so far as I know), I wouldn’t even presume to take a guess as to the nature of a supernatural being. I take very seriously the words of Isaiah (55:8-9): “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts….'” Assuming the existence of god, I think Isaiah got this right. I might even be moved to say that claiming to understand god is blasphemy. If asked if I am a weak- or strong atheist, a theist, or an agnostic, to answer honestly I must say I don’t know until a definition of the god or gods in question has been given, but I can state categorically that I don’t believe in (and, in fact, believe in the nonexistence of) any of the anthropomorphized deities put forth by Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Scandinavians, or any other groups who believe in a mountain-dwelling warrior, heavenly king, celestial lawgiver, or astral parent.

One could postulate the existence of a necessarily existing being and call this “god.” If one adopts Tillich’s view that god is existence itself, then, given that we are here to consider the question, one could not reasonably take a weak atheistic, strong atheistic, or even agnostic position (this is, in Smith’s terms, “conversion by definition”[1]). The best one could do in arguing against such a god is to try to show that the definition is not a good one. Similarly, if one were to define god as a logically impossible entity (I am aware of no one who knowingly and seriously does this), then a theistic, weak-atheistic, or agnostic position seems unavailable. These cases don’t strike me as being very interesting as far as the present project is concerned, so I will ignore them. Once we move away from necessary gods and impossible gods, proving or disproving god’s (or gods’) existence becomes much more difficult if we allow a lot of latitude to those giving the definitions. For instance, I’m not sure how I would prove that my cousin’s unicycle isn’t a god; perhaps it is inscrutable and isn’t showing its powers right now. The same goes for the carton of grapefruit juice sitting in my refrigerator right now. When the definitions are wide open, when gods are allowed to be careful not to leave fingerprints, agnosticism looks like it’s forced on us. This, of course, goes nowhere in deciding whether one is a theist, a weak atheist, or a strong atheist.

Except in the easy (and uninteresting) cases of necessary or impossible deities, proof of existence one way or the other appears impossible. Broadly speaking, absolute, airtight proof or disproof of a contingent, shifty god’s existence seems out of the question, so for this enormous class of possible gods I counsel a position of agnosticism. A more realistic example than the unicycle or grapefruit juice is not hard to come by. One can imagine a deistic god who created the world in a way that perfectly mimics natural processes and never again plays an active role in the universe. Here agnosticism is required. One could fall into any of the weak atheist, strong atheist, or theist camps, although what strong-atheistic or theistic beliefs would be based on escapes me (true, one could justify a methodological strong-atheistic stance on the grounds of simplicity, but it is ontology that interests me here, not methodology). Here, then, an agnostic weak-atheist stance seems most justified.

From here on, I would like to confine the conversation to personal gods who take an active role in the world. Further, I would like to assume the god or gods in question are omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient. I do this because I think this is what most people (at least in the West) have in mind when they discuss these issues. I do not claim that the discussion will be exhaustive of all possible personal, active gods. Relaxing any of the requirements of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, or omniscience can yield interesting discussion. This will, however, make the conversation a little more tractable. Rather than dealing with a whole panoply of possible gods, we will have a more specific conception in mind. I will argue that a position of agnostic, strong atheism is warranted given these restrictions.

For the sake of simplicity, then, “theism” could hereafter be read as “theism with respect to the god of the major monotheistic religions.” The same should be done for weak- and strong atheism and agnosticism. This strikes me as the most commonly intended sense anyway and will simplify the language used here with respect to monotheism and polytheism. Further, I want to appeal only to conceptions of god as widely acceptable as possible and not argue against, say, a god who created the universe on the order of 6000 years ago. This will make the argument as general as possible. The reason for my strong atheism can be stated succinctly: The assumption of an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful god who takes a role in human affairs raises more questions than it answers. If true, this is bad for theism. Any hypothesis whose bang is not worth its buck is one the theorist is better off without. As a hypothesis about how the universe actually is, the god-hypothesis fails. That’s it. It has nothing to do with me being angry with god, an urge to worship the devil, or a need to tweak believers. It is simply based on the idea that superior theories solve problems inferior theories cannot. If a theory is fruitful it will raise separate questions, and this is all to the good. These new questions may be investigated, and those investigations will help tell me if the theory holds water. A theory involving a god as conceived by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam just doesn’t measure up to naturalistic theories based on modern science. This is also bad for weak atheism. I do not base this on the proposition that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Rather, if the assumption of the existence of an entity is more problematic than the assumption of the nonexistence of that entity, then we must opt for nonexistence (notice in the deistic case the existence-assumption is no more problematic than the nonexistence-assumption, so weak atheism is justified).

So what are some of the relevant problems and questions I have regarding the existence of god? An important one is “How did the universe come to exist?” I confess that I don’t know. True, scientists are working on it, but so far all I have are promissory notes from the scientific community. It is an open question, and it is a big one. The theist, of course, believes she has the solution: god made the universe. Perhaps, but how did god make the universe? Through what process was the universe created? Any kind of answer that appeals to supernatural agency and power is a nonstarter since no one has any idea what a supernatural process is. Such a response is incomprehensible and explanatorily useless. I expect I understand natural processes as well as most nonphysicists, but an “explanation” that boils down to “god did it magically” (or through the power of its will, or supernaturally, or however one wishes to phrase it) goes nowhere toward making the world understandable. If the theist’s explanation does not appeal to supernatural activity, then god isn’t needed to make it clear how we all got here. There is a third possibility. The theist may say she doesn’t know how god created the universe either, but her ignorance is no more helpful than mine. Further, I have hope that one day science will uncover the mechanisms involved in bringing about the universe; as far as I can tell, the theist has no grounds for hoping her ignorance will be alleviated by theology.

Assuming there is a god, why did god create the universe? Presumably the reason is that humans would live and come to know god and, having come to know it, worship it. But why not simply surround itself with us in heaven and leave out the giving-us-life-on-earth thing altogether? Why put us at risk of eternal damnation with the “gift” of life? It’s certainly not how I would have handled it (but then I’m risk-averse by nature). I should note that the atheist has no answer to why the universe is here—there can be no noncausal why for the atheist. The universe just is.

What is the meaning of life if we are born, live, die, and that’s it? I find meaning in the love of family and friends, in the joy and sadness I feel in the whole life-experience, and in the awe I feel when I commune with nature, though this meaning may only be personal and not ultimate. The theist rejects this as an ultimate answer, but she has her own solution. For her, the ultimate meaning of life is presumably the eternity basking in the presence of god that awaits me if I hold the correct beliefs in my earthly life. It seems to me that this merely pushes the problem back one step. If no ultimate meaning can be found in the love of friends and family or in the kinship I feel with all the world, then what ultimate meaning is there in loving, worshipping, and being awed by god in an afterlife? If one is pointless, the other is too. Duration of the awe-struck state just doesn’t seem that significant.

If it ended there, the theist could claim that our theories struggle with the same questions and that hers, in contrast to mine, offers her solace in times of trouble. While it would be nice to have a supernatural friend looking out for me, the fact that a theory offers solace is no indication of its truth. Furthermore, it doesn’t end there. When the god-hypothesis is imported into a theory of the universe, new questions are raised. One is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It is a fact that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to good people. Similarly, good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to bad people. This is simply not a problem for the atheist. Indeed, in a universe that is indifferent to the affairs of humans, this is to be expected. Consider a computer’s random number generator that produces an integer between 1 and 100 every time I click the “generate” button with my mouse. Half of the time an even number will be generated, and the other half of the time the number will be odd. It makes no difference if I use my right hand or my left to operate the mouse: half of the left-hand-generated numbers will be even and half will be odd. The same result holds for numbers generated when my right hand operates the mouse. It would be surprising if it were otherwise; my computer is completely disinterested in which hand I use when I am operating the mouse. The parallel is obvious.

For the theist, however, this is a big problem. The entire project of theodicy is an ad hoc endeavor to account for just this issue. A commonly offered “solution” is that some evil is required to make the universe maximally good. It is undoubtedly true that some evil, both moral and natural, works to produce greater good than could be achieved otherwise. However, it is questionable that all evil is of this sort. Particularly troubling is the problem of pointless evil, illustrated by the parable of Rowe’s Fawn.[2] In any case, the god-hypothesis has created a problem where none existed before, and the theist has no satisfactory answer for it. Notice it all could have been otherwise. It might have been that only good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This would be very strong evidence for god’s operation in the world. The absence of correlation between goodness and good tidings is striking.

Where are the “fingerprints” of god? That is, if god takes an interest in human affairs and acts in the world, shouldn’t these actions be discoverable? When properly controlled experiments are carried out investigating the medical efficacy of intercessory prayer, no such effects are found.[3] Why is this? Again, this is not a problem for the atheist of either the weak or strong sort. Since god is not taken to exist (in the weak atheist’s case) or taken not to exist (in the strong atheist’s case), there are no godly actions to discover or godly inaction to explain. The lack of healthcare-related benefits relating to prayer comes as no surprise. Alternatively (again), this is a real problem for the theist. When we are desperately ill and most in need, where is god? The theist may argue that god does intervene, only in a statistically insignificant way, but why is god so capricious? If god cures grandma’s cancer (but, significantly, never grandpa’s severed limb), why isn’t Aunt Tilly’s aneurism deemed important enough to warrant healing? Saying we cannot understand god’s ways does no good, for this is an admission that there is no answer for the problem that has arisen precisely from the assumption of god’s existence—without such an assumption, there is no problem. It is worse than this, however. If the theist wishes to claim that the (weak- or strong) atheist cannot take a “god’s-eye view” of the universe to see that all things actually work for the best, how is it that the theist can take this view? The gambit of exploiting theological skepticism works only too well; it undercuts the theist’s position just as well as it undermines the atheist’s.

The final grade report looks like this: Theism doesn’t answer the atheist’s questions and it creates new problems for which there are no satisfactory answers. That pretty well settles it. The god-hypothesis does no explanatory work, and it creates problems of its own that do not plague the weak- or strong atheist. This does not lead to a position of weak atheism. The assumption of a luminiferous ether raised problems for its advocates, and these problems ultimately led to the rejection of the notion of the existence of ether. That is, scientists today do not merely fail to believe that the ether does exist, they believe that it doesn’t exist. Thus, I believe strong atheism is justified. Does all this prove god doesn’t exist? Absolutely not. The fact is, there may very well be a god’s-eye view of the universe unavailable to mere mortals that does show that all the evil in the world serves to make it a better place than it would otherwise be (though there is no reason to believe that this is the case). Hence, I believe agnosticism is also justified. In the end, though I remain open to new arguments and evidence, I am, at least for the time being, an agnostic and strong-atheist.


[1] Smith, George. Atheism: The Case Against God. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989, 34.

[2] Rowe, William. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979), p. 337.

[3] Benson, Herbert. “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer.” ScienceDirect , (accessed 26 July 2011).

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