I have long found the drawing of distinctions between agnosticism and atheism a dubious affair. Conventional wisdom has it that agnosticism involves a suspension of belief or disbelief in the existence of gods, while atheism decidedly affirms non-existence. This view was recently reinforced in a piece on Bertrand Russell by Claire Carlisle. In his essay “What is Agnosticism?” Russell defines the distinction thus:
An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial.
However, despite this, Russell acknowledges that, “An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.” But is there actually a theoretical difference? Are there any such atheists as defined by Russell? Even Richard Dawkins, the caricature of a “militant atheist” (a ridiculous term, of course), does not affirm the non-existence of gods, he merely argues for their extreme improbability (or, for the more likely kinds of gods, their superfluousness). While I’m sure that if you scoured the internet you could find some convenient strawmen who claim to “prove” the non-existence of gods, I have never met one. In any case, such a definition of atheism is nonsense and thus such a distinction between agnosticism and atheism empty.
Etymology perhaps reveals the roots of the conventional distinction; at least, the root of Russell’s position. “Agnostic” is a relatively recent term coined by T.H. Huxley that stemmed from his concerns about the claims of metaphysics in general, but came to have a particular significance with regards to questions about deities:
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. […] So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.”
Both Huxley and Russell suggest that the question of gods is a metaphysical one. Atheists hold that the this question can be decided upon by conventional means (e.g. scientific practice). Agnostics on the other hand, differ in that they refrain from weighing in on metaphysical questions.
While I too share my doubts about the potential for science to address metaphysical questions (though this is probably by definition; metaphysics is precisely what science seems unable to address), it is not clear why Huxley and Russell think the question of gods belongs to metaphysics.
The question of the existence of the Christian god, for example, is not like debating the existence of the noumenal realm or the nature of causation. Christians hold a plethora of positions about their god such as: he answers prayers, causes miracles, created the Earth about 6000-7000 years ago, created two people from which all humans descended shortly thereafter, caused a global flood about 5000 years ago, exacts vengeance on those who do not follow his laws, and so forth. These are not metaphysical questions. They are entirely tangible; they can be easily investigated in conventional ways. Even Russell betrays this:
The question whether there is a future life and the question whether there is a God concern matters of fact, and the agnostic will hold that they should be investigated in the same way as the question, “Will there be an eclipse of the moon tomorrow?”
Furthermore, Russell and Huxley treat atheism as a form of purported knowledge. But while theists routinely claim to “know” of some god’s existence, it is exceedingly rare for an atheist to claim to “know” that gods don’t exist.
If atheism isn’t a form of knowledge, is it a form of belief? I would argue no.
In ordinary speech, this doesn’t matter much. Atheists will say that they believe that gods do not exist, or they will say that they do not believe that gods exist, and mean the same thing. Here belief means the common sense of something not quite meeting the criteria of knowledge. To say that one believes that gods do not exist is clearly not to say that one is certain of their non-existence, but merely that one is inclined to think they don’t exist.
But on a more theoretical level, I find such ways of speaking problematic and perhaps contributing to the common definition of atheism given by Russell, since it obfuscates the real nature of atheism. Atheism, properly regarded, is a form of skepticism. It is the absence of belief, rather than a belief.
The reasonable default to any ontological claim is non-belief. If someone makes a claim about the existence of some newly discovered thing – a new species, or particle, or astronomical object, or whatever – the epistemological and ontological attitude of those who have not yet seen the evidence for this claim remains essentially identical as before the claim was made. They continue not to believe in its existence, the only difference being that previously they could not assign a nominal object to their non-belief. But making things up does not change the essence of the non-belief.
Prior to July 4, 2012 there was no physical evidence for the Higgs Boson, and prior to 1964 the particle hadn’t even been theorised. Are we to say that Einstein had a principled position against the Higgs Boson?
It is absurd to call the position of not believing in things for which there is no evidence a doctrine, let alone a dogma.
Here two classical notions in the philosophy (and practice) of science are instructive. The first of which is the burden of proof (maybe this is more properly placed in legal philosophy? Historians of philosophy, get on it). When someone claims the existence of something, it is up to them to provide evidence for its existence. The other important concept is falsification. Any claim about the existence of something is unfalsifiable. It is a logical impossibility to prove that something does not exist. The common refrain, “You can’t prove it doesn’t exist,” is meaningless.
Placing expectations on non-believers to justify their non-belief in the absence of evidence is merely a rhetorical distraction on behalf of those making ontological claims to bolster their knowledge statements and shift responsibility. Despite being well-aware of these issues, Russell claims, “The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial.” But there is no need for grounds for denial. “Denial” is non-belief, which is precisely what suspending judgement amounts to.
Atheism is thus the default ontological position. Atheists do not believe that god exists. And it is clear that agnostics also assume this position. Self-proclaimed agnostics like Russell do not believe that god exists. Agnosticism is de-facto atheism, both practically and theoretically.