Category Archives: Against Atheism (a rhetorical experiment)

Against atheism – third addendum

The Argument from Possibility

When contemplating the general question as to the existence of a deity, is is usual to consider necessary deities first and foremost, and sometimes exclusively.  In a culture dominated by monotheistic religion this is reasonable.  The first deity that usually comes to mind is an absolute and necessary God, lord of all Creation.  If this God is ubiquitous and ever-present, stitched into the fabric of existence, we shouldn’t have to go far to disprove it.  With respect to this deity of absolute presence and power, a reasonable argument for non-existence can be made if it can be shown that any part of reality functions smoothly without any evidence of the hand of God.  If no god is required for things to operate, then perhaps  it should be considered likely that there is none.  This argument accords with the demands of parsimony, keeping the Cosmos simple.

Of course, this argument only works if God works in mysterious ways: via miracle, and so on.  If God works in mundane ways then She may not show Her hand at all, having set physical processes running in such a way as to make them to all intents and purposes independent.  In other words, if some divine engine of the universe is running, but everything it does has a natural cosmic machinery equivalent, then the existence of a universe saturated with God may be falsely refuted.

If atheism is the view that there is definitely no god, it should go further than refuting the existence of this particular deity.   A strict atheist argument should, I think, defend the logical position that god (or gods) do not exist even possibly.

Consider a pantheon of gods of the sort once thought to populate the Hellenic world. Like ministers in a democratic government these gods have portfolios – areas of influence.  Some control or represent elemental forces.  Others have social portfolios, dealing in human emotions or areas of civil life. They live, like the Greek gods, in a nearby palatial dimension, or atop a mountain somewhere.   They are irascible, petulant, capricious corrupted by great power.  The mortals who live under their sway are sometimes grateful for their influence but never quite able to relax.

In considering the question of atheism it is not only necessary to refute the existence of God Almighty, Yahweh, but also the Greek pantheon.  How easily can we make the argument that the Greek gods (or the Norse gods, or the Egyptian gods) did not exist?

One approach that comes to mind is to ask what happened to them, if they did exist.  The story of their departure from the Earth is not part of the mythology.  What of other ancient Gods – Mithras, for example, or Thoth.  In general, if they had existed, one might assume they are still here.  And these Gods were far from mysterious in their conduct: their presence was widely felt.  When you lived in the vicinity or on the stamping grounds of Zeus or Thor you knew about it, if the stories are accurate. 

Even from this thin argument the existence of the Ancient gods might be refuted.  If these gods existed at this world, so recently in history as three or four thousand years ago, the evidence should be more substantial that they were here.  If they departed, why is this not part of the mythology? 

This argument is against atheism, not against pagan belief.  The point of interest here is not whether arguments can be found to refute the existence of gods, but whether any proposition can be put asserting the existence of deities that cannot be adequately refuted.  

So far deities canvassed in this part of the argument are Necessary (God) or at the least Actual gods (in the case of Greek or Norse gods in the sense that they either existed – Actually, in history – or they did not.  Some propositions, though, concern possible rather than actual deities.  And this leads to questions as to whether an atheist must  reject  any statement that is not strict  negation where the existence of god/s is concerned.

Looking at the question as to whether the Greek gods existed in history is entirely different from examining the possibility that they exist.  But the atheist, I think, is bound to refute both of the following statements:

The Greek gods existed in history and intervened in mortal affairs.

A pantheon of powerful gods possibly exist and may intervene in mortal affairs.

The first statement, as indicated, is relatively easily refuted.  The second statement at least requires a different calibre of refutation.  Looked at in a quantitative way, asserting the possible existence of gods means asserting their existence at some world.  If logical space contains all possible states of affairs as worlds then to refute the existence of a God or gods means arguing that such a state of affairs is impossible.  It is not important whether there is evidence locally concerning the existence of a deity hereabouts.  The question here is whether a world with gods can be imagined which is otherwise consistent with ways that worlds might be.

One approach to examining the possibility of the existence of gods is to look at the notion of supernatural power.  Fundamental laws of physics, we might say, must be true at all worlds.  The powers of the gods must be explicable in terms of these laws, or else they exist at no world.  

This argument is dependent on setting minimal conditions as to what a world is.  Fundamental laws of physics as we have them may not be considered necessary.  Perhaps only mathematical axioms are constant across all of possibility. Perhaps not even mathematics is consistent at all possible worlds.

A state of affairs is impossible if it does not satisfy minimum or necessary conditions for worlds, or if it is contradictory.  If there is any possible, non-contradictory state of affairs of which a god or gods are a part, this contradicts the essential atheist claim that ‘there is no god’.

Possible worlds theory can be employed as a tool for looking beyond Actual or local gods in making claims about what may or may not exist.  Is the committed atheist required to refute the existence even of possible gods – gods at other worlds, in all possible states of affairs?  One reason that this is difficult is that people do not share a common set of minimum conditions for worlds.   

A second reason that it is difficult to be clear on whether gods possibly exist (at some world) is that opening speculation up to all sorts of different possible worlds opens up speculation on what constitutes a god.  Is a being a deity relative to beings it creates or lords it over?   What absolute criteria for divinity prevent such an easy application of the label ‘god’?

But this is properly the subject of the next part of this argument, ‘The argument from high technology’  to be posted in coming days.

Worth noting that possible worlds theory presents some interesting questions for theists as well as atheists.  If it is believed that there is an all-powerful, Necessary God, then by implication that God is everywhere, and at all worlds.  There cannot be a world without God.  This means that even the possibility of God’s non-existence cannot be conceded, and this seems odd.  A powerful line of thought, though, for theists.  The problem is in an adjunct question:  does the necessary and absolute God exist at all worlds at once, or is there a necessary and absolute God for each (given that possible worlds are supposedly causally independent).  Plantinga a good read on questions such as these. 


Against Atheism – first addendum

It is useful to make it clear what this argument against atheism is not  ( this brief piece serves as an Addendum to a larger rhetorical experiment here).  This is not an argument for the existence of any particular deity, or deities generally.  This is not, in general, an argument that anything specific exists that is not generally accepted, or proven by empirical science.

There is no claim that any sort of enduring afterlife awaits us as we leave the mortal coil. There is no claim that particular people have acted as conduits for messages from gods to Earth – as prophets for gods.  There is no claim that miracles have been performed, signs have been left, people resurrected, that a judgement day’s a comin’. There is no claim that the evidence for evolution should be disregarded because the cosmos was instead created at some time in the last few thousand years.

In general terms, this  is not an argument designed to engender belief in deities. As the author of this piece, I can attest that having had an entirely secular upbringing,  I have since embraced no faith.  All evidence of perception and experience have indicated to me that there is very likely no god.   All this said I have not yet heard an entirely watertight argument in favour of atheism.  The theory that might support the personal experience seems weak.

Partly this is worth stating because it should be made clear that making a case for atheism by mounting an argument against religious dogma will not serve to refute the one put here. This is not a defence of Creationism, Intelligent Design, or the existence of Heaven and Hell, or any particular god at all. It is a defence of the idea that agnosticism is the stronger position to take in relation to the existence of god/s, given the limits of what we know.

The next step in making clear what this argument isn’t is trickier.  I want to make it clear that certain off-the-shelf notions of God or deities are not being endorsed.  It should really be clear from the main body of the argument against atheism: the position defended here is one of agnosticism and general uncertainty, not a defence of the existence of gods in general.  The most that is being conceded is the possibility that something that perhaps should or could be described as a deity of some sort may exist somewhere.  But spelling out what kinds of God claims are not being made about is useful for two reasons.  Firstly it distinguishes this argument from those that are based on assertions that God necessarily exists.  Second, it again demonstrates that this argument against atheism is unaffected by any that aims to discredit specific, and often misapprehended conceptions of God.

Here, then, are some conceptions of God that are not being defended here (or possibly by anyone):

No claim is being made for the existence of ‘God-with-a-beard’ (the cheap construction of the Christian God that can be visualised in a Pythonesque way, or comes to mind when the sun breaking through the clouds has a religious connotation reminiscent of cheesy credits of Sunday morning TV programmes or even cheesier late night advertisements for God).

No claim is being made here for a Stern Creator along the lines of Jehovah, Old School.  This conception of God appears a terrifying sentience – an individual – distinct from the universe, with vast inexplicable powers over mortals’ Earth and a penchant for smiting those who do not turn to worship adroitly.  There is the suggestion at the beginning of the Old Testament of other gods from the same region as Jehovah – this suggests local origins despite eventual universal reach.

No claim is being made here for a  god of Love either – by which I mean the kind of deity Aristotle and Plato called God.  The Christian God of the modern era looks to an agnostic philosopher like an amalgam of Jehovah and neo-Platonic abstractions, ideal forms existing on another plane.  The highest of these forms, according to the ancient philosophy, is Love.  This ubiquious, benevolent force seems to infuse an idea of God prevalent today: it’s the idea, in any case, I was slightly exposed to during childhood.

I could go on listing – or constructing – gods that claims are not being made about.  No claim is being made that there is a deity in every tree, that Hermes is flitting about the skies, that Poseidon is somewhere under the waves.  But it should be clear by this point that there’s a problem with these gods as defined.  The problem is, really, that the definitions lack conviction.  Because I don’t believe in the existence of the deities in question, I can’t put out a description of them that would make sense to the people who do believe.  My definitions of Gods are secular ones: I cannot be sure any definition I provide would be adequate for someone who accepts that the god in question exists.

This may well be a problem widespread in argument about the existence of deities:  it is very difficult for two people engaged in conversation about a deity that just one of them believes in to be sure they are talking about the same thing.   In this case it may be necessary to concede that justice can’t be done to the idea of a God who necessarily exists unless one believes She necessarily exists.

All this is grounded in the further assumption that God is explicable.  It may also be reasonable to consider that any actual God defies the sort of description that can be included in an argument like this.

It should be clear that I have only a vague idea about what it is I don’t believe in, and that this is the source of any doubt about disbelief.  It isn’t that I want to argue from here that doubt about strict disbelief in god should lead to belief.  It shouldn’t.  But I don’t expect that I can go about imagining all the ways that other people conceive of God, or gaining access to all of the required concepts and connotations.  Some of these conceptions may be simple – easy to grasp.  But others I know to be complex edifices of belief and understanding, that defy respectful treatment with a quick and ready definition.

The principle reason for following this line of thinking is to put this proposition: how can unwavering belief in the non-existence of gods be maintained without first considering – with a degree of imagination –  all of the ways that gods might be?  In my own case I’m ready to say that I can only realistically refute things that I’ve considered.  And for a number of reasons, I haven’t thought about all the ways that God or gods might be.

As stated, this might be because I’m not equipped to have the right sort of experience of the world to properly apprehend God (assuming Her existence). It might be because I don’t have the education or cultural background to conceive of gods or God in a proper light.

Far more persuasive than either of these two possibilities, from my point of view, is consideration of all the deities, religions, faiths and pantheons I haven’t heard of at all, or only in passing.  Those that I can only encounter indirectly due to the barriers of language (all of them, really).  A refutation of Christianity does not count as a refutation of all the religious thought that’s been done.

Until some sort of comprehensive stab has been taken at thinking about all the sorts of deities that might exist, a definitive assertion that there is no such thing as any god, anywhere seems weak. The Argument Against Atheism, then, from Doubt about Disbelief is that it is not possible to refute something with complete confidence without knowing specifically what is being refuted. A kind of doubt should be conceded about the claim that something does not exist  if there is ambiguity about what it is that is doing the non-existing.

Against Atheism – second addendum

The argument from Reconcilable Concepts

The brief argument that follows is an Addendum to the larger argument Against Atheism (a rhetorical experiment) mounted on this blog in recent days.  Having set out the main argument (here), several attendant arguments are necessary in order to complete this experimental refutation of Atheism. This Second Addendum to the main argument suggests that agnosticism should be considered because some notions of God may be reconcilable with other concepts, or at least reconcilable to the extent that we cannot be certain there is no overlap in meaning.

To this point the argument against atheism that has been mounted could fairly be accused of being grounded in negation and even obfuscation.  The main tenet of the argument thus far is that there is a range of beliefs about what is true in the world that cannot be verified by observation.  People tend to make definite claims about what is true of this unobservable part of the cosmos.  Some claim it is filled with God.  Others argue there is definitely no god.  It has been put that agnosticism – uncertainty – is the most easily defended position regarding what is not decidedly known.

This positive point of argument for agnosticism is grounded in the idea  that what is meant in some instances by ‘God’ is something that is isomorphic with – can be mapped onto – concepts that exist in a Secular cosmos. 

For those sceptical about this idea, the best way to proceed is with an example. At the other end of the scale from the Biblical gods of yore listed earlier are ideas of God I find less implausible.  The Jain faith, best known for its stipulations regarding non-violence even towards insects, has also produced a complex and engaging epistemology based on a set of seven modes of apprehension for the cosmos.  From my limited comprehension of Jaina texts and associated writings God is a deity in whom all seven modes of apprehension coincide.  God is omniscient, then, as is the Christian and Jewish god Jehovah.

The Jaina deity did not create the Cosmos.  The role of this deity is to reveal the cosmos via (or as) intelligence.

Although this conception of God has been raised in contrast with a Christian God, rational philosophers such as Spinoza and Liebniz took a view similar in some ways: for both the mortal world is apprehended because God allows elements of the world to feature in mortal minds.

The Jaina deity appeals because it is an omniscient deity without the problematic role of Creator.  If the deity is the source of objective perspective because its point of view is infinite, then it can be seen (probably in an inadvertently reductive way) as the sum of perspective – the totality of intersubjective intelligence.

In a culture steeped in Individualist tradition, it may be anathema to concede the notion of an individual mind in order to construct a conception of a god.  But tradition aside, this is not a difficult shift to make in abstraction.  Consider all sentient life in the cosmos.  A part of this we can be certain exists – the sentients on this planet.  Depending on prediliction it may be assumed there is much more sentient life in existence than us, here, now.  The totality of sentience in the cosmos constitutes a being of substantial thinking capacity, if thought about this way.

In the ordinary course of things, Western minds think of themselves in isolation, and see other minds the same way.  But for the sake of thought experiment, the shift can be made to considering all sentience in the cosmos in concert – as a generalised thing .  No change is required in the materials or structure of the universe in order that this transition be made.  Only a change in point of view with regards the totality of intelligence in the cosmos.  Seen as a single object, or a force, or a phenomenon – it doesn’t matter which – intelligence is something amalgamated, a gestalt.  This does not resolve the question as to whether what we can imagine in this way is anything like a deity that may or may not exist.  But this question does not need to be resolved to be thought about.

Oddly enough Richard Dawkins is a major proponent of this sort of abstracted view of intelligence.  In much the same way that biological life can be seen as a kind of rash on the surface of a planet, intelligence can be seen as an abstraction.  For Dawkins the representation of intelligence is as a kind of bacteria or fungus, but then Dawkins is a reductive bastard determined to suck every last bit of mystique from the universe.  Intelligence can be seen in an atomic way as ‘memes’, which are a kind of concept particle. Intelligence is limited to particular planets where sentient life evolves.  Then at a certain point in the life-cycle of the planet, memes may blossom and stream away from the planet into space.

Analogy is used widely in this sort of reductive thinking.  The same sort of thinking can be used to cobble together a kind of poor man’s conception of an omniscient (though not necessarily omnipotent) deity.  It isn’t wrong to say that human beings are colonies of trillions of cells, bacteria etc. Not is it wrong to claim that a human being is an integrated whole.  Extrapolating from this model we can say that one mind constitutes a being, and that it does no violence to this idea to assert that all minds constitute a being or entity of another kind.

In order to refute the idea that there is a possible overlap between the Jaina conception of an omniscient deity and an abstract concept of cosmic gestalt mind, it seems to me, the atheist has to go to some extraordinary Lengths.  No, she will have to argue, it is not valid to take the cognitive step from looking at individual minds to looking at minds collectively throughout the cosmos.  Or no, this posited entity comprising all intelligence is still nothing like what might be meant by those who (properly understand) and subscribe to the Jain faith.

 What is proposed here is not the acceptance of any new deity, only the attempt to see some overlap in meaning between concepts from distinct cultures and traditions of thought.  In any case, this is encouragement to speculate without any intention of deciding whether or not we can imagine a deity found in (to someone from the English-speaking world) an exotic scripture.  The question does not have to be decided.  If it is conceded the question can legitimately be raised, then the agnostic’s position is advanced together with the argument against atheism.  A kind of doubt will have been raised, although not necessarily the ordinary kind of doubt.

It might be asked why anyone should want to muddy the clear waters of their understanding about deities in the cosmos by engaging in this sort of abstract speculation.  From my point of view the thoughts presented here as an argument against atheism are the result of subjecting an absolute atheism (my own) to critique and doubt.  The result is the uncertainty in evidence.  This project seems to me a worthwhile and entertaining one in and of itself.  It promises to further understanding of the paired questions ‘what’s true?’ and ‘What can we know about it?’

Against Atheism (a rhetorical experiment)

Why on Earth argue against atheism?  It’s a bit like arguing against feminism (except that I don’t want to argue against feminism). It’s like arguing against feminism because atheism has been brilliant, as a set of ideas, for civilisation.  Expressing doubt in the existence of God was once punishable by death in Western society. Today flagrant disregard for any religious notion whatsoever is entirely acceptable – the norm, even. Children have the opportunity to grow up free of dogma that other generations have been trapped by their entire lives.

Western societies by and large unchained themselves from the sun, as Nietzsche would have us say, and fell away in all directions.  The monolithic belief system that had ruled the minds of European citizens for centuries was finally undermined.  All this of benefit for Christianity as well as an increasingly secular West: power structures and religious doctrine should never be allowed to become so closely intertwined,  it is to the detriment of both.  So all of this is to the good.

But atheism itself tends to the dogmatic, of late.  To the monolithic. To intolerance.  Atheism is dominant, even de rigeur in many circles of intellectual life in Western countries.  People who do not subscribe to  Orthodox Atheism are actually – seems dramatic even to say this, but it’s oddly accurate – people who do not subscribe are ridiculed, sneered at, belittled, as though anyone not disposed to atheism is actually deserving of immediate insult and correction. This is true in individual interactions and also in a general way: some atheists on Twitter happily deride in a general way any in the world who do not entirely agree with their position.

The inference here is that Atheists have the truth, and those who do not accede to this truth are in inescapable error.  We live in a godless cosmos. End of. *

Does this seem right to you?   Atheism seems as dogmatic as theism is charged to be.   One obvious problem is that any system that simply forbids consideration of certain options is unable to be reflective or critical in certain ways.  Some of those who are devoutly religious do constantly test themselves with the idea that there is no god at all: reading the novels of Graeme Greene alerts the reader to the existence of characters such as these.

This must seem a rigorous system even to the non-believer.  It is not necessarily scientific.  But what is best about science is clearly carried over into this approach to devotion. Constant doubt and scepticism of ones own conclusions is the best antidote to blind devotion to a false idea.

Again, I want to point out that this sceptical approach is an idea that is part of scientific method, not an idea from science.  It is a cornerstone of the method of reason developed by the Ancient Greeks.  It is a implicit in the methods of philosophical inquiry over millennia and across several civilisations.   From the Ancient Greeks these same methods of dialectic inquiry, self-doubt, rigour of observation, acknowledgement of counter-argument have been applied in theological as well as scientific, mathematical, logical, and philosophical inquiry.  These concepts permeate all of Academia and far beyond, and have been embraced by Moslem and Christian scholars as well as those of atheist inclination.

To someone who is genuinely interested, then, in retaining a sense of perspective about their own beliefs and understanding all varieties of Certainty about what is and is not are equally suspect.  Atheism is to be regarded with the same critical, sceptical air as theism.  The claim that there is no god is as fundamentalist a claim as the claim that god exists. 

The claim that science is the only system of knowledge worth wrestling with is reasonable, as is the claim that science has produced no evidence for the existence of God. But science does not have every answer and a reasonable argument can be mounted that it never will.  With this in mind, it stands to reason that in addition to things we know that have been deduced from science, there are things we speculate about, but do not know. As long as claims are not made with certainty about the sphere beyond our ken, we can be consistent with the best tradition of scepticism.  Absolute assertions about the existence or non-existence of deities fall outside the sphere of knowledge, in almost any way we define it.

According to a reasoned, logical observer of the universe, then, some things are known, and others are not.  Of those that are not we tend to speculate.   Forbidding speculation in areas where we don’t have a lot of data is a call made by some, but it’s clearly not a useful one – without speculation on things we cannot perceive directly Einstein wouldn’t have been thinking about mirrors trains and light.)

But  to be utterly rigorous  we might agree that what is speculated upon and not observed cannot be known about in any certain way.  A fair measure of something being the sort of thing we ‘know about’ are things like testimonials, accounts of observations, recorded measurements, pictures, video, audio data.. Some of this data is of a scientific sort.  But science is not unique in wanting /producing  rigorous empirical data: this demand is common in many areas in civilisations that consider themselves to be well-organised.  (Forensics was originally a branch of rhetoric, as recorded by Aristotle) Nor is science uniquely able to take advantage of the benefits of Reasoned thought: philosophy and logic are other areas at least equally well equipped in this regard.

Is there anything not knowable by observation, by gathering data, by doing science or reasoning things out?  Well, there are things not understood.  Pre-big bang is an obvious example of a difficult observational site of inquiry.  What is the experience of human beings after death?  What is objective experience of the universe like?  What would unfiltered experience of the immediate environment be like (if there is such a thing).  What is time?

Given this space of things about which we have some knowledge – even very specific measurements – but very little understanding, what are we to do?  We may form opinions. We may extrapolate from what we know.  Without observational data, however, science might suggest we know absolutely nothing at all.  The future, for example, has not been tested.  We can follow Hume in anticipating there is a reasonable probability the sun will come up tomorrow, but no certainty.

With luck, at this point, the route suggested above seems reasonable when confronted with that we can’t test.  We should not presume to be certain about that we cannot perceive or measure or map with sufficient clarity of vision.  We should, however, continue to speculate why not?   We are bound to extrapolate from what we do know of the cosmos, and map the laws we have found onto the parts of the universe we know nothing of.  As long as we recall that in fact all of our knowledge beyond what we can test is uncertain, and much that is testable can be called into question as well.

Of course, this is an Agnostic’s trap.  With respect to the origins of the universe, to what is in the universe, and what constitutes it, I want to say, we should not forbid speculation, but hold ourselves open to perpetual doubt.  Anything else, as I shall argue further, is contrary to both science and reason.

As determined earlier, for the purposes of this exercise, ‘scientific truths’ are limited to those that are observable – testable.  Being stringent about this, it is only possible to say that things are true in a scientific way in places that they can be measured. It is not strictly scientifically accurate to say that because something is the case at one locale (gravity working a particular way, for example) it will also be the case at a different location.  This sort of extrapolation takes us beyond the realm of strictly observable objects and therefore empirical science.

I Want to say, then, that there are three kinds of thing: 1.) those that are scientifically and philosophically and mathematically true, 2.)  those that are believed to be true, but fall beyond 1.)  and 3.) things tat are considered unknown.

For the purposes of this argument – trying to be fair – the term ‘knowledge’ will be reserved for the first category.  It’s a vague category. We ‘know’ certain things when the idea in someone’s mind accords with the observable fact.  But perhaps derivable truths might be acknowledged as well, in order to avoid argument.  Or perhaps it would provoke more.  If we say that the only good truths grounded in good science are those that can be tested against empirical data, it clearly distinguishes these from ideas about what things are like in the rest of the cosmos. Many atheists, agnostics, and theists can agree broadly on a body of scientific truths of this nature.  Scientific truths fit together with a body of truths from other disciplines derived from the same tradition of rigorous inquiry. Together these comprise a corpus of knowledge.  To test what qualifies for this corpus ask whether something is generally uncontested. 1+1=2 is a good example. If you have one apple you have one thing. Observable objects impact on other objects with force under certain circumstances.

The term ‘belief’ may be a sensitive one to raise at this point, because atheists will often say they do not believe, they know.  But I want to give it a specific, neutral purpose, aving reserved knowledge for a subset of belief. Belief is often taken as a religious term, which for atheists often means ‘unfounded’ or ‘wrong’ knowledge.    I want, for reasons that will become clear, to use the word ‘faith’ for a kind of belief in something that we do not have data or ‘proof’ for. 

Belief should be used to mean something else: the epistemic position an individual has on something.  It may be fair to say for some reason that a particular piece of knowledge is knowledge, not belief or opinion, because it is known to be true.  But looked at epistemically, this knowledge is distinct as it exists in the human mind from its existence as a relation between the human mind and a state of affairs.  If a person and their thoughts are taken as being individual, separate from an environment, then beliefs are what a person ‘knows to be true’.  How they came by that truth and how accurate the truth is is not the point. So I will talk of what people ‘believe to be true’, intending that this term be equally applicable to belief that it is true there is a god and to atheism – belief that it is true that there is no god.

Again this is an Agnostic trap, because the position presented here as the most scientific is that of the agnostic: determined to go on doubting everything that is not clearly true, and then doubt the things that are.   As may be clear by now, there is a kind of dogmatism at the heart of this position, too, and certainly self-righteousness:  to the Agnostic it appears as though the only proper position is uncertainty.  There may be no god, but this is difficult to demonstrate in a concrete way.  There may be a god, but again, this is difficult to demonstrate.  Agnosticism seems a reasonable position to take with respect to any deities that do exist: from humility we do not presume to comprehend or be certain of the nature of the gods, if any exist. In fact, though, the central dogma of Agnosticism – uncertainty – confers a sense of certitude superiority on its acolytes as powerful as anything experienced by a Zealot of any other extreme.

I’ve been careful to define particular terms in certain ways because I want them to mean certain things in order that I can make a specific argument clear.  I’ve gone out of my way to do this because certain meanings have been corralled in debate about atheism.  Before proceeding I want to point out that in the ordinary course of things the meanings that are likely to be attributed to certain words forbids their use for making certain kinds of arguments at all.

In particular the term ‘faith’and ‘belief’ are the terms I’ve taken most care to define, and ‘knowledge’ has been defined as distinct from each of these.  ‘Faith’ in particular is often seen as somehow dichotomously opposed to ‘Rational thought’ or ‘Logic’ or ‘Reason’ or even ‘Sanity’.  This is not helpful, since it absolutely prevents any discourse on the topic with those who see faith as good grounds for belief.  So I want to take pains again in defining faith as distinct from either knowledge or belief, but distinct again from the cheap definition often afforded the term by Atheists, some of whom apparently despise the notion.

To recap, knowledge, for the purposes of this argument, has a very constrained definition: it is belief in something that is proven by observation, empirically true, as far as we have grasp of context.  This definition gives a certain ontological grant to the idea of knowledge – it admits that certain things can be ‘known’ in an objective way.  But given a large body of commonly agreed knowledge proven in exactly this way, this concession has been made.  And the body of knowledge is almost unreasonably constrained.

In any case, knowledge as defined here is distinct from belief. Knowledge constitutes an idea about what is true  that correlates with observable reality.  Belief is any idea about what is true whatever.  This is, remember, for the purposes of this argument: indulge me with these definitions briefly and then go back to your own in a moment.

Belief is here not related to lack of empirical evidence for something – as will be seen we have that idea pinned down separately.  Belief is any idea at all in a mind about what is true.  The socks are red is believed to be true. God is benevolent is believed to be true.  Under this scheme ‘knowledge’ is a subset of the range of ‘beliefs’ about the world.

From here a definition of faith can be developed that liberates the concept from its derogatory use by atheists before putting it to work developing an argument in favour of agnosticism.  Faith, like ‘knowledge’, is a subset of belief.  The set of beliefs that can be ascribed to faith is precisely the set excluded from the body of knowledge already defined. Faith is a belief about what is true that does not have foundation in observable data.

To avoid taking anything on faith, then, appears as simple as sticking purely with empirical truth – taking what is observably and testably true as the limits of certain understanding.  In a sense, this is the position the argument has been constructed in support of.   The agnostic makes a faith of uncertainty, and comes close to this scientific ideal. But Agnosticism, as has probably been noted by now, has its own dogma in certainty about uncertainty.  

In fact many people claim they do know what is happening in parts of the universe entirely beyond the scope of humanity’s current and possibly future understanding.

Some, for example, claim that there is an Apocalypse pending, a Day of Judgement. Others have it that millions of years ago the souls now attached to humans were deposited in some sort of chamber in a mountain in a transaction that involved giant space gods.  These ideas are  religious ideas.  To those who do not hold one or another set of beliefs in a monotheistic deity or a pantheon of gods, the belief in particular in complex specific narratives associated with gods and their followers seems suspect: so much seems to be taken as true in so much detail.  So much of history, meanwhile, is so uncertain.

In this case a different set of questions arise:  how can we God’s/the gods’ nature/character/likeness so well?  How can we hope to apprehend such a being if it really has omniscient vision, omnipotent power?  Again it seems sage to start with the idea that it isn’t good to be too specific – that we can’t understand, really, what God is/gods are.

These are obviously silly questions to those who do have faith in God’s existence.  My guess is a person of such conviction might tell an unfortunate like myself that my luck might change if God chooses to reveal Herself to me.  Figurative veils may be lifted, I’m not sure.

Here the term faith as earlier defined can legitimately be applied: an individual with faith in God has a belief about what is true without observable evidence – lying beyond the corpus of agreed observed phenomena (although this corpus seems a more problematic beast every time I have to raise it in argument).

Atheism, from this perspective, is another kind of dogma, when applied to the whole universe.  According to the Atheist view it can be stated with certainty that there is/are no god/gods anywhere in the cosmos. As with those who maintain the existence of a deity of some kind, the claim is made although its proponents lack the observational power to provide data.

More contentiously, I now want to say that this, too, is an article of faith.  As defined for the purposes of this argument, as neutrally as possible. Deliberately, a very stringent criterion has been set here to make a belief about the world a bit of ‘knowledge’ rather than a belief based on faith:  it must be observable – empirically proven.  A lot of what we believe to be the case is technically beyond the bounds of knowledge.  Either the truth is rejected, or it is taken on faith.

If there is a set of things we do not know about, should we then not speculate at all?    In this way we could avoid the problem of extrapolating from our knowledge of the cosmos to the parts of it we know nothing of.  As it is, it’s difficult NOT to extrapolate from what we know, for example, about a few hundred ‘rocky’ planets like Earth, to what we don’t know about the frequency of such planets overall throughout the galaxy.  We do the same thing when we think about time: we tend in general to assume that time works more or less the same across enough of the universe that it represents a good measure for things that happen very very far away (in some sense or senses).

If something is believed to be absolutely true, to exist or not exist – absolutely – then it is true everywhere (and when).  But the observable limits of our universe prevent us from claiming very much at all about what is absolutely true, everywhere, for all time.  Or at least, we can make the claim, but should acknowledge it is based on faith, rather than on knowledge, in the strictest sense.

This holds for claims about the existence of God.  Many of those who believe in God or gods will agree that this belief is based in part on faith, as defined for this argument.   Many others believe that the entire cosmos is godless.  They are probably less likely to accept that this belief is grounded in faith rather than in knowledge.

From the point of view of an agnostic – not sure by definition – the idea of certainty on questions about the existence of gods is as preposterous as the idea to the believer that the Atheist might be right.  It is unknown.

These are the grounds in which the agnostic viewpoint I want to outline here as a counter-argument to atheism has its roots.  Although certain terms have been redefined for the convenience of my argument, it is hoped that their meanings have not been further dragged through the dirt by the exercise, but rather elevated somewhat from the grubby regard in which they’ve formerly been held.  The broadening of the definition of ‘faith’ is not meant as an affront to atheists, but to make a point about the easy way we step from direct knowledge to unsubstantiated belief in making assertions about the world.

*  (The argument against the claim that this is dogmatic seems to be grounded in the idea that the truth is a negation, but it does not have to be stated as an ordinary negation.  In any case, it can also be said fairly that a more troublesome dogmatism lies at the heart of Agnosticism, as will be indicated properly.)

First Addendum:      The argument from Doubt about Disbelief

Second Addendum:  The argument from Reconcilable Concepts