Agnosticism is De-facto Atheism

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.


  1. I recently posted an article similar to this subject. I will pick nits and say that a person who is agnostic is not necessarily an atheist, but a person who advertises him or herself as an agnostic, is.

    Agnosticism, however, does not preclude making a positive statement either way. It is possible to not know, and yet take a position on faith. These people who do so, however, do not claim agnosticism as their flag standard belief.

  2. “Agnosticism, however, does not preclude making a positive statement either way.”

    According to pretty much all conventional definitions of agnosticism, including perhaps the most relevant, Huxley’s, it does. Agnosticism is precisely the refrain from making a positive statement either about the existence or non-existence of gods.

    However, the point of my post was that the notion that one can make a “positive statement” about or “affirm” the non-existence of gods is nonsensical.

    What I offered as a definition of atheism is very straightforward. An atheist is someone who does not believe that gods exist. This is not a principled position or doctrine in itself. To say that one does not believe in gods is not to make a positive statement or “take a position on faith,” it is merely to continue the default ontological position, which is non-belief.

    “I will pick nits and say that a person who is agnostic is not necessarily an atheist, but a person who advertises him or herself as an agnostic, is.”

    I don’t understand this distinction. Is it between the implicit and explicit agnostic? In any case, the only relevant question is whether this person believes in some god or not. If they do, they are a theist (or some variation thereof), if not, an atheist.

    To say that one is “not sure either way” is wishy-washy nonsense, as the state of being not sure is tantamount to non-belief.

    1. Agnosticism is the belief that you can’t know if a god exists. It is possible to not know, and yet still believe, or not know, and believe there is no god. This is because the two are different kind of claims; where agnosticism is a claim about epistemology, theism and atheism are claims about ontology.

      Of course, the point is to address those who are just agnostic. And those, are atheists.

      1. Ahh, yes, I see. That’s essentially how Huxley and Russell define agnosticism, but I think they would also claim that there are no grounds for belief, either. And as I note, the notion that the existence of gods is a properly metaphysical question and thus not knowable doesn’t really hold up to the kinds of claims made about gods.

        I’m also suspicious of the species of agnostic who claims that one cannot know if gods exist, but believes they do anyway. I suppose this is what faith is supposed to address. And yeah, you’re right, these people would probably not define themselves as agnostics.

        I guess the root issue is that epistemology has yet to do a satisfactory job of ironing out the difference and relationship between beliefs and knowledge.

      2. I’m also suspicious of the species of agnostic who claims that one cannot know if gods exist, but believes they do anyway.

        These would be those who subscribe to Pascal’s wager.

  3. “To say that one is “not sure either way” is wishy-washy nonsense, as the state of being not sure is tantamount to non-belief.”

    I don’t think it’s necessarily nonsense that a person can’t be sure either way. I have found myself in that position over the last few months. Scrutinizing it, I might say because of my Christian background I suspect deity exists but find many of the arguments wanting. Simultaneously I find naturalism, which as far as I know provides the best alternative atheistic framework to theism, too self-assured and closed to non-empirical epistemologies. (Viz., I don’t know a name for an epistemology that allows for love, but I would say love (depending on your presuppositions) might be an example of a phenomena that cannot empirically be proven but exists nonetheless.)
    Perhaps I’m saying agnosticism is possible to the extent of one’s skepticism, mine being extremely high right now.
    Does this make sense? Or, do I seem to be merely a cynical theist rather than a true agnostic?

    1. To say that “one cannot be sure either way” is nonsense, is akin to why the statement “you can’t prove gods don’t exist” is also nonsense, which links back to atheism being the default ontological position, which is one of non-belief.

      Certainly, it is fair to say that one cannot be sure that some god exists. Even if one accepts there to be evidence or reasoning sufficient for a belief in some god, they arguably can never be certain, just as one can arguably never be certain of anything, because skepticism always wins, even in the face of the most convincing empirical requirements.

      But to say that one cannot be sure that some god doesn’t exist is entirely extraneous. One does not need to pronounce such a thing, or add it as a clause to their position on the existence of some god, as non-belief is already the default position. Since one logically cannot prove that gods, or anything else, does not exist, what could it mean to say that one is not sure that something doesn’t exist? All one can do is continue to not observe some hypothesised entity, but non-observance isn’t induction.

      To reiterate, all one need say is, “I am not sure whether x or y or z exists.” Adding that you are also not sure if x or y or z does not exists adds nothing meaningful to the first statement.

      I realise, of course, that there might be compelling non-empirical reasons to believe in the existence of something, as in various theoretically hypothesised physical laws or particles. The link between observation and theory is pretty complex, and certainly many outstanding questions remain with regards to the degree to which one can be justified in their beliefs in the absence of empirical evidence. So, this makes some generous room for your mention of “non-empirical epistemologies,” in that empiricism probably isn’t sufficient for epistemology, but it is certainly necessary, so any epistemology that excludes empiricism is no good.

      But, there is no compelling theoretical paradigm which has been holistically empirically supported for which the existence of some god (whether specifically named or entirely vague) is a sine qua non.

  4. Thanks to both for the stimulating discussion in this post and these comments!

    @Ignostic Atheist: No, I would not say that currently. I am aware of Pascal’s wager and think it has some merit (though perhaps his claim that living a Christian life, regardless of Christianity’s truth or faleshood, fulfills one’s happiness in this world is specious). But I don’t buy it right now (perhaps because my last concrete beliefs about god before apostatizing laid heavy emphasis on grace).

    1. I personally find Pascal’s wager to be dishonest. Believing something, not because you feel you have a reason to, but because you are afraid. This is why I think that only an actual theist could subscribe to the wager, because he or she would have to see something in it in order to summon up actual belief. Without that, it would be painfully obvious to the individual that he was merely going through the motions.

      You said that one thing holding you back is the concept of love, in that it’s not provable. The first problem to deal with is that love evades definition, much like a god. Love can be described as a light friendliness, to romanticism, to sexual attraction. These are three very different emotions that are gathered under one name. I believe they’ve run brain scans which have shown unique responses for the situations. So if you mean that love has to be taken at face value when someone tells you, “I love you,” then that’s not exactly true. Good luck getting access to a lab to get anything verified though.

  5. Interesting discussions here. It’s something I’ve pondered on and written on for years now. Something you both might find interesting is to focus on the distinctions you’re creating between the words ‘know’ and ‘believe’; I feel a lot of misconceptions are born at this point.

  6. @Ignostic Atheist: Yes, love is a hang-up for me regarding a naturalist’s epistemology, but there are other things, too. Beauty, for one. I lightly visit those in my post . Thanks for beginning to disambiguate the term though.

    @Bernhard: I think I understand what you are saying about agnosticism being de facto atheism. It sounds good in writing. However, I just find that idea lacks explanatory power for my current experience. Yes, in practice I am functioning — e.g., making ethical decisions — as an atheist (to be sure, many of my Christian friends actually confess this as well). I don’t have thoughts of a deity in mind when I choose one action or the other. But I would say that at other times I still suspect the existence of a god.

    You write that non-belief is the default ontological position and illustrate the claim with the example of person A telling person B they (A) have discovered a new species. B will remain in a state of non-belief until sufficient evidence is produced. However, this is often not the case (we frequently trust the claims of people we know) and, moreover, that example does not account for the extremely complex ways in which we are actually formed as rational beings. People are born into communities which give them language, beliefs, behavior and other things. People inherit their ontological, metaphysical, epistemic positions: because of the way real child-rearing obfuscates one’s developmental processes I argue we cannot know what those “defaults” are other than what they are first conscious of, which for some would be belief and others, non-belief. [It is interesting (and perhaps sad?) that the English language biases the issue for children from the beginning by only giving them terms for “non-” belief that are defined negatively (atheism, non-belief, unbelief), as if theism were the right or only viable position. What do we make of this linguistic oddity?]

    At this point, because of my experience I am more inclined to say my agnosticism is not de facto atheism or theism but simply agnosticism. However, I would value your thoughts about that and especially about why non-belief must be the default.

  7. Bernard — I don’t see much to disagree with within the context of how you address this, but it surprises me that you don’t broach what I see as the real core — cultural identification. For example, I have a friend who maintains that the phrase “New atheism” is without content, because Dawkins, Hitchens, Myers and the like have much more in common with atheist thought that came before them than they don’t–they aren’t presenting a new philosophical stance at all. I, on the other hand, still find “New atheism” to be useful, possibly because calling it “militant atheism” would too quickly set off defensiveness in my friends who identify with the relevant ideas. I don’t want to sidetrack into “New/not new atheism”, but my feeling is that “New Atheism” usually posits, implicitly or explicitly, that the poor scientific and critical thinking skills of the public is at the core of many current large-scale societal problems, blocks us from improving or addressing things like public education, climate change, accepting/developing new technologies, and widespread adherence to non-empirical, sometimes/often authoritarian religious beliefs is both emblematic of this and an underlying cause of it. And there is where I part ways with how many of them comport themselves–there seems to be a feeling among those like (the late) Hitchens, Dawkins, and allies like Bill Maher, that people would behave more rationally if we just got rid of fucking religion. And we should do that by direct attack on the dogmas and irrationality of religion. I, on the other hand, think this is an incorrect hypothesis leading to a hopeless approach–social psychology (science!) pretty clearly supports the idea that direct contradiction with a litany of evidence is not going to refute a set of beliefs on a wide-scale, particularly not contradiction with the express mode of intellectual attack (as a colleague of mine pointed out, attacking our beliefs often engages our fight or flight mechanisms, which tend to make us take more cognitive short-cuts, not fewer).

    Anyway – I could blather on about this, but I view agnosticism vs. atheism as having two real components–components that are not internally, logically consistent but rather socially constituted and re-constituted:
    (1) Atheism tends to manifest as active denial. That is, I personally have fluttered between atheism and agnosticism for a while, and it feels almost like there is a physical switch in my brain that goes from “I am sure there is no God, spiritual realm, etc.” to “meh, maybe there is, probably there isn’t, but isn’t it pretty to think so.” While one cannot prove a non-existence (such a thing is meaningless), we aren’t made of logic gates, and thus I would argue that many/most atheists act as if non-existence is in fact, proven. I mean, I would argue that the human mind isn’t really capable of distinguishing between “1 in a googleplex of a chance” and “0”–we often say the first is “effectively 0”, which essentially is true for human experience, but arguably there is an important difference between “literally impossible” and “wildly unlikely”. (You could reduce the denominator significantly from a googleplex and I think the same holds true.) Even though scientists make the (important) distinction between “highly likely to be true” and “true”, in our own minds I say we treat them as equivalent. Which is all to say: denial may be logically equivalent to non-belief, but socially saying “I don’t know if there’s a God” has very really different impacts socially than saying “I’m fairly sure there is no God” or simply “There is no God.” (Or New Atheism: “There is no evidence for God or Gods, and continued belief in them is an expression of a problematic irrationality that inhibits our ability to advance as a society and human race.”) I feel very, very different about the world on days when I feel like “maybe there is, maybe there isn’t…” and days when I feel like “for all intents and purposes, there isn’t”. TL/DR: logical classifications lumping “holding judgment” with “affirmative non-belief/denial” together make sense, but my subjective experience of them is different, so I argue that they are usefully different categories even if they are not logically different. (And thus they are also socially real: race differences have real effects whether they exist or not, and belief in their existence perpetuates certain realities.)

    (B) Sorry, going on longer than I meant to, but this naturally follows from, er (1) — (oops). That is, agnosticism and atheism mark belonging to different social groups, with different approaches and polarities. I’d argue most atheists express affirmative non-belief with various degrees of hedging. Most agnostics do not go that far (“I don’t know/I’m not sure”). The degree to which their beliefs are actually or effectively congruent does not stop their subjective experiences of their beliefs from being different, their conclusions drawn different, or their perception by (and approach to) other people being different. Agnostics are, generally, less threatening to theists in my experience. Atheists are, in my general experience, behaving as if they believe the chance of there being a God is 0 (impossible) rather than vanishingly small (implausible), and also are more likely (in my experience) to place importance on affirming the lack of relevance of unlikely deities for human life, society, and decisions. Agnostics, again, all to my impression, tend to be more accepting of the importance others may place on their belief in God(s) existence, and may themselves place some degree of importance/significance in relevant practices, rituals and “philosophical” texts. The social identification is important and real, and has real effects on behaviors–similar to the lack of epistemological difference between atheists and New Atheists, to my mind.

    (he’s gonna write yet more words! yay! :-/
    Long story short, I think there’s an interestingly similar argument about, say, denominations of Christianity. Even if you take two very similar denominations, who let’s say share the same epistemological beliefs for all intents and purposes (the existence of God, his son Jesus, the Holy Ghost, resurrection, a belief in Hell, and redemption) it is useful to distinguish them many times.

    Similarly, stating to someone that “My life, nobody’s life, has any purpose” and “I’m not sure if there is a purpose to Life” may have the same ontological properties, but they reflect (in my experience) different epistemologies and numerous related ramifications.

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