Knowledge versus Belief

I consider myself an atheist as well as an agnostic. And whenever I mention that to someone, I get a puzzled or disapproving look. (See this comment on one of my previous posts: Religion, Culture and Mr Hitchens.)

Many perceive agnosticism as the middle way between atheism and theism. And people who consider themselves agnostics with that definition in mind seem to feel that both atheism and theism positions are dogmatic. “How can someone be 100% certain that God exists (or does not exist)?”, they ask. From this POV, atheists seem to be making the same mistake as theists (cocksure certitude about an un-provable hypothesis), and agnosticism sounds like a reasonable, open-minded and rational position to take.

This is a flawed understanding of what agnosticism (and atheism) is about. Let’s start with the etymology. The word agnostic comes from the Greek word ‘gnōsis’ which means knowledge. And atheism comes from ‘theo’ which means god. So while agnosticism is about the lack of knowledge about God’s existence, atheism is about the lack of belief in God. They both operate in different paradigms:

In the diagram above,

A = An agnostic theist who does not claim to know for sure whether God exists, but he choose to believe in God anyways.

B = An agnostic atheist who does not believe in God and also thinks that the existence of such entity cannot be known for sure. (This is where I belong. I think the absence of evidence does make God improbable, but not impossible. I do not claim to know for sure that God does not exist. But I think God’s existence is very unlikely.)

C = A gnostic atheist who claims to know for sure that such entity does not exist, and (hence) does not believe in God. This is an unreasonable position – and perhaps very few atheists belong to this category. Atheists usually believe in science and reason, and recognize that all scientific truths are provisional. (“I believe x.” does not mean “I can prove x.”, but “It would be unreasonable to doubt x.” See my earlier post Science Never Proves Anything for more details on this.)

D = A gnostic theist who claims to know that God exists, and (hence) believes in God. I think most theists probably belong in this category, because they are usually pretty sure that their belief is reasonable and justifiable with “evidence”.

So there. Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. Also, while some of the above positions are logically more coherent (and hence more prevalent) than others, theoretically, one can belong to any of those four quadrants. I belong to the agnostic atheist quadrant. Where do you belong?

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23 responses to “Knowledge versus Belief

  1. I like the post and I haven’t seen it said like this before but it makes a lot of sense.

    Except for me (but I’m a bit odd). Can I sit on the line between A and D?

    My problem is that I believe God lies outside the bounds of human logic and reason. God doesn’t contradict it but adds to it so it is not possible to “know” God through logic or physical evidence. Just like quantum mechanics doesn’t void Newtonian physics but lies beyond it and explaining it in simple newtonian terms is illogical.

    That makes D not possible. However it is possible to “experience” God, for which there can be no words that can adequately describe it so that means A is out because I do “know” but can’t rationally explain it (well I can but it would be a poor representation a bit like describing consciousness or even the taste and smell of a banana).

  2. A great explanation, I might have to steal it from you at some future point. Although I would add that I think there is a positioning between gnostic atheism and agnostic atheism. We cannot be sure that a god does not exist but mainly in the sense that the definition of god makes it and almost impossible position to disprove. Therefore, as long as we cannot prove positive existence, it still it exists as a possibility, although a very unlikely one.

  3. Vishal, thanks for this wonderful article. It was really a treat to read.

    India has a long philosophical tradition of both atheism and agnosticism. We have Charvakas who are hard atheists; on the other hand, we have the Buddha, who is an agnostic (rather agnostic atheist). Buddha’s stand seems to be more logical. He deferred the question whether the God exists or not. He thought it is not necessary to prove his existence/absence to live happy.

    By the way, I fall in the same quarter of agnostic atheists with you 🙂

  4. @thirdobservation,

    I think you can – because these axes are continuous – there are shades of gray introduced by degrees of one’s Belief and the (perceived) amount of certainty regarding one’s Knowledge.

    You can surely claim to know for sure that God exits. It appears that your claim is based on “experience” as opposed to logic, reason and empirical evidence. And your rationalization is that these things are beyond reason. But I have problems with that rationalization.

    Reason is a continuous fabric. You can’t have reason-free zones, to support arbitrary beliefs (about God, gods, or Flying Spaghetti Monster…) Here’s a quote from Stephen Pinker:

    “Reason is non-negotiable. Try to argue against it, or to exclude it from some realm of knowledge, and you’ve already lost the argument, because you’re using reason to make your case. And no, this isn’t having “faith” in reason (in the same way that some people have faith in miracles), because we don’t “believe” in reason; we use reason.”

    @janeyqdoe,

    Yes, there’s a continuation of scales here. For many (like me), agnosticism is the rational position to take because (like you said) the definition of God itself makes him/her impossible to disprove (an un-provable hypothesis).

    The position you’ve described seems to have some things in common with ‘non-cognitivism’.

    @Ganesh,

    Indeed a long tradition of atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism in India can be traced back to the Vedic times. Amartya Sen has elaborated quite a lot about these (what he calls) argumentative nature of Indian psyche in his engrossing book The Argumentative Indian. Highly recommended, if you haven’t read it already!

    Vishal

  5. Hi again,

    It would be interesting to hear your speak on fundamentalism. I believe you are a fundamentalist rationalist. Here is an argument against Pinker: You can’t use itsef to prove itself. That is circular logic and is irrational, negating rationality.

    A fundamentalist Bible believer will say the bible is true and there is nothing outside the Bible and it proves itself to itself (is axiomatic by its very nature).

    A fundamentalist logic believer will say logic is true and there is nothing outside logic and it proves itself to itself (is axiomatic by its very nature).

    The nature of science is to use external verification and if there is no external verification the conclusion is not “scientific” or “rational” but just a belief. Is Schroedinger’s cat dead or alive?

  6. Rahul

    I am an atheist. It is hard to say if I am agnostic or gnostic because while I cannot be absolutely certain about anything, I do not think God exists at all. Until we evolve a different definition of God, I do not think the present understanding of “God” can exist in reality.
    Just read the above comments, rather than making it impossible to disprove, I think the definition of God actually either implies abstract or non-existence or implies impossibility. With the current definitions I think, God created nothing, God does not see us, God did not light the spark for the big bang, we aren’t made in his image, God did not take 9/10 avatars to rescue the world, no miracle happens by his divine grace, there is no “supreme personality” of Godanything etc. etc.

  7. @thirdobservation,

    Hey, let’s not get into a slugfest here! 🙂 And besides, this is not the first time I’ve been called an fundamentalist; in general, atheists have been often (mistakenly, IMO) called fundamentalists by theists. But I think Stephen Pinker already addressed this (albeit briefly) in that quote: “And no, this isn’t having “faith” in reason (in the same way that some people have faith in miracles), because we don’t “believe” in reason; we use reason.” Fundamentalism requires belief and faith — and rationalists don’t believe in reason, they use reason (science, evidence) as a mean to acquire knowledge and justifications.

    On a lighter note, this reminds me of a brilliant xkcd comic: https://vishal12.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/atheists/

    @Rahul,

    I see where you’re coming from. One issue with the definition of God is that they are often not very consistent, especially when it comes to how each individual perceives those definitions – consider deism, theism, and ietsism, for instance.

    But you two raise very important points – which perhaps warrants a separate blog post. Unfortunately, I am busy right now with my final weeks of the Fall semester with exams and submissions, so that will have to wait. 😦

    • Love the cartoon, thanks for that.

      If rationalism is just a tool, then it would be used like a tool. Either approriately or inappropiately or well or not-so-well depending on the user. For anyone to use a single tool exclusively and to exclude all other tools that work differently requires a “belief” in the capabilities of just that one tool.

      I think that’s rational.

      (Sorry, if it came across as a slug fest. I enjoy these discussions and I do press buttons. I’ve never even heard of letism so now I have to look it up.)

      • Yeah, I am a big fan of xkcd comics.

        There’s a Wikipedia page for Ietsism – check it out (There was a typo in my comment above – now corrected). It’s a Dutch word that literally means “something-ism” 🙂 It’s not a widely known or discussed belief system, but I know many friends who identify with “Well, there must be something!”.

  8. VJ

    I guess I am A 🙂

    There have been some challenging incidents in my life where I have actually given up but somehow those challenges kind of fixed themselves once I stopped thinking about fixing them which has always made me believe that God or some supernatural power exists that’s constantly helping me but I am not sure of the form of God – how He looks, what He wears, etc. Also, is that God or just inner strength? So once I stop thinking a problem that’s bothering me, by leaving it on my beliefs, that problem fixes itself. Not sure if this makes any sense?

    Also, at times, I don’t have a logical justification or proper means or resources to get to something that I am trying to accomplish but my instincts say that I should go for it and I have often experienced unseen support that I get from natural forces to get me to where I want, which has made my beliefs towards God (or some unseen supernatural power) stronger.

    I am really not an expert to discuss the topic but couldn’t stop myself from sharing where I belong to, after reading this very interesting article.

    • Hey VJ,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and POV. Your explanation reminded me that according to many scientists our belief in God is an evolutionary by-product of a feature called “agency detection”. We are inclined to presume a purposeful intervention of an agent (i.e. God, or a supernatural being) in situations that may or may not involve such agent. This agency detection trait was originally developed as a survival mechanism (if trees move in forest there must be a mover, if clouds bring rain there must be a rain maker, etc.) I had actually written a post about this a while ago: Breaking the Spell. Check it out when you get a chance: https://vishal12.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/breaking-the-spell/

      Vishal

  9. I know some people who do not like the words ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. Their point being, it’s not the so-called ‘atheists’ who should be called with an ‘a’ in front. It should be the other way round. For example, it is not rational if ‘believers’ of FSM call themselves FSMist and all others as aFSMist!

    • Yes, there’s negative connotation with the a- prefix, that many atheists don’t like. Some atheists, like philosopher Dennett, have even tried to coin a new term for atheists, but unfortunately you can’t impact common vocabulary so easily.

      On the other hand, some people prefer the term non-theist to atheist. Although the negative connotation still exists, and that still is a definition *in relation to* or *as contrasted from* the theists, they think that it’s important to differentiate between ‘lack of belief’ (non-theism) and ‘active disbelief’ (atheism).

  10. Sonia

    Never thought it this way. Interesting point. Btw visiting your blog after a long time. Pleasure as usual.

  11. got to read this post after a long time!!! and boy, am i glad!! it really got my brain cells tingling with excitement… eager to figure out where i fit in this new religion-quadrant-system!!! after much ado, i think i lie somewhere between A and B. i also agree with you that the possibility of a higher power existing somewhere is highly unlikely, although it is not entirely impossible. ( i guess that makes me an agnostic?)
    Now when it comes to belief, i may give in and accept that some power exists somewhere, but i strongly disagree to any form of worship,prayer or obedience shown towards that power. in other words, i refuse to acknowledge my acceptance of that power in any way possible or as has been defined by any of the existing religions. does that make me an atheist or a theist? i’m not able to think beyond this, that’s why i placed myself on the line between A and B.

    • Hey Pranav,

      Glad you found this post interesting, and intellectually stimulating!

      So you don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God but accept that some power exists somewhere. I think that makes you an Ietsist (also mentioned above in one of my comments). This wonderful Dutch word – which deserves more popularity, IMO – literally means ‘something-ism’, and I know many people who would easily relate with this… “I don’t believe in God, but there must be something!” That’s Ietsism.

  12. Oh..my bad..its Ietsists..

  13. Any strong opinions in either direction on the existence of a God is necessarily a baseless gut feeling. Claiming there is no evidence of a God or that a God is unlikely is equally speculative as a strong leaning or belief in the existence of a God. A God doesn’t have to be the anthropomorphous version that Abrahamic religions to. It doesn’t have to be anything our minds are designed to understand or even recognize.

    Also lots of reasonable people see plenty evidence of a existence of a God, because you choose not to admit them into evidence is more a sign of your own personal bias than any objective prove you have to justify a lean in any direction.

    It remains the case that most explanations of the world’s phenomenon aren’t actually explanatory in a fundamental sense as much as it simply refers the answering to a higher order process. Eventually we all run out of higher order processes to defer to at which point none of us is able to provide any explanations any more credible or any less ridiculous than a God.

    • I don’t want to speak for other atheists, but my position (as an atheists) is rooted not in the impossibility of God, but the improbability of God. Not so extreme, as you might think.

      Also, just because we don’t have some answers, doesn’t mean that a proposed answer is automatically correct. (As a theist would say “Well, at least my theory provides an answer!”)

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