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Myth: All Atheists Are Agnostics

Updated on June 2, 2010
Breaking news from Chicken Licken
Breaking news from Chicken Licken

Reasonable Certainty

One of David Hume's most famous and important points is that we can't be certain of anything. How do I know that the cereal I had for breakfast today won't be poisonous tomorrow? Because I've had that cereal countless times for its nutritional value and in the past it has always worked. How do I know that what worked in the past can be expected to work in the future, though? Well, in the past things that worked in the past have tended to work in the future. That is to say, I have no further explanation. All I have is the constant conjunction of these elements. But to explain constant conjunction I only have constant conjunction itself, ad infinitum. Hence Hume's conclusion that we can't be certain of anything. The sun might not rise tomorrow, blue may turn red tomorrow, what used to be nutritious might suddenly be poisonous, and so on.

The solution is, of course, reasonable certainty. It may be impossible to have absolute certainty of anything, but one can be reasonably certain of things. All that is required for reasonable certainty is that there be no good reason for doubt. So if the cereal I have for breakfast has always been nutritious and absolutely nothing has changed, then it's reasonable to assume it is still nutritious and unreasonable to doubt it. If, however, I am aware that Kelloggs has been taken over by North Korea, then I have reason to believe the cereal may become poisonous. Without a good reason to doubt, I can be said to have certainty, even if it can never be given a perfect foundation. I can be reasonably certain that the sun will continue to rise, that blue will remain blue, that coffee will continue to taste like coffee, and so on.

Hume or me (pun intended)
Hume or me (pun intended)

Overdemanding Definitions

Once, upon returning from a meeting of several prominent atheists, Hume declared he had never met an atheist in his life. This was especially curious considering Hume himself had a reputation as an atheist. But it is a common position and myth that atheists are really agnostics, or worse, closeted believers. For instance, Niels Bohr was found to have a horseshoe hanging in his office. A fellow physicist asked, "Surely you don't believe in this?" And Bohr replied, "Of course not; but I hear it works even if you don't believe in it." This is perhaps the way some think of atheists. People who believe in their own way, thinking they don't. What Hume doubtless meant is that there is no-one with absolute certainty that there is no God. Hume should have known better.

If you define a pizza as "a flattened wad of cooked dough topped with tomato sauce, cheese, and meat," then any pizza without cheese or meat is not a real pizza. This is a common attitude in groups. "He's not a real communist, for he owns a car!" or "He's not a real Christian, as he believes in works over faith!" This is a problem of overdemanding definitions. And the demand that an atheist have absolute faith is overdemanding.

If an atheist is defined as someone with absolute certainty in not-God, an atheist is a man of faith. It's built into this definition that the atheist be a hypocrite. An atheist chastises others for having faith and yet has faith himself. In reality, most if not all atheists deny themselves absolute certainty. What atheists do have is reasonable certainty that there is no God. They are as certain there is no God as that the sun will continue to burn tomorrow, that it wasn't gremlins that broke the motor of their cars, that cereal will continue to be nutritious. Should some information be granted to them that makes this certainty less reasonable, then they may cease to be atheists. Obviously Jesus's many appearances in burnt toast, the existence of this universe, and the power of prayer has given them no cause to doubt their reasonable certainty. Agnostics, by comparison, do not even hold reasonable certainty.

Blast! She's married.
Blast! She's married.

Fascination

This short article was written in response to this eloquent hub by HubFriend Ben Zoltak. It's recommended reading. He expresses difficulty accepting that there are 'real' atheists. There may indeed be atheists of the type that have faith in no-god. Absolute faith happens, of course. But I don't think, for the reasons given above, that atheists must have absolute certainty or faith. Ben's appeal for less certainty and openness to a broader picture is a benevolent one and hopefully an appeal I've shown to be compatible with atheism. Atheism is not about certainty, but about reasonableness. Atheists are free to be fascinated by ideas of all sorts. It's through fascination that we discover just how reasonable our certainties are; through apathy that we eat the North Korean corn flakes. Think about it.

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    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      8 years ago

      Hey Winston,

      Nice to have a Winston visiting one of my hubs. I'm not sure how something that doesn't exist goes about proving its own non-existence. Proving as an activity of existing things, surely?

      Cheers!

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      8 years ago

      Hey eatfiftyeggs,

      Yes, that's right. Speaking of certainty rather than just knowing brings out the issue as clearly as I could make it.

      I think agnostics are taking a Pyrrhonian position toward the existence of god, which is to say: There are equally good arguments for the existence as there are against he existence, so we'll just not commit to anything.

      Cheers!

    • profile image

      AKA Winston 

      8 years ago

      Fortunately, I have proof: The Atheist Unbible, 66 different books that were not written over 1400 years in which not a single prophecy was made, a book that proves by its non-existence to be the non-inpsired non-word of no one.

      Nothing 13:6 __________

      Try to refute that!

    • eatfiftyeggs profile image

      eatfiftyeggs 

      8 years ago from U.S. of A.

      So, do you think that it's reasonable in this case to make a distinction between using "know" in the common-use sense of the word, and using "know" as an epistemological term?

      Personally, I'm comfortable with using "know" in the first sense to say that I know there is no god. As an epistemological term, it's difficult to say that I have a justified knowledge that there is no god. Certainly, I think it's a justified belief, but I don't "know" a negative (there are no leprechauns, for instance) in the same sense that I know 1 + 1 = 2.

      Once you define agnosticism as a position regarding knowledge, the question becomes what sense of the word "knowledge" you are using. This seems to me to be the issue that is hanging up most self-described agnostic atheists.

      Maybe I misunderstood, but I felt that this was the point of your argument. Frankly, I've always felt that most people who adopt the label "agnostic" are making the false claim that there is no basis to form a belief about whether or not there is a god. There is tremendous confusion about distinguishing between a belief and knowledge, and what these two terms mean, and I think that's muddling up the issue.

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      8 years ago

      lol damn, I had my eye on Aunt Bessie's inheritance.

      Can I use this sinister quantum power on people? 'cause I want to make Jennifer Connelly come to me soon, freely, and easily. I'll rub my arab lamp for her just in case. ;)

    • the pink umbrella profile image

      the pink umbrella 

      8 years ago from the darkened forest deep within me.

      Hahahaha, i didnt notice the bandaid before. She rescued the jesus toast from her broken toaster. All this talk about toast is making me want some shrimp toast. God what i wouldnt give for some chinese food right now! By the way, the law of attraction only works for the individual. So like, wake up every morning and say to yourself "money is comming to me soon, freely, and easily." Oh, and its not like rubbing an arab lamp, aunt bessie isn't going to die and leave you your inheritance because your trying to draw in 5 grand.

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      8 years ago

      Yeah, I've heard of it. The thing that annoying DVD (what the bleep was that DVD called anyway?) and other sources tend not to mention is that changes at the quantum level are negligible at the level of physical objects. The example I gave to Green Lotus once is this: Imagine a crowded subway station. You stare at a guy and smile. Your observation of him may make him uncomfortable, or the smile may make him feel good, but the trains are still gonna run and everyone will get to where they wanted to go without incident. The affect you had on that guy was just too small to make a change on a wider scale. To my knowledge, all studies corroborate this. But then, I'm not exactly scanning the scientific journals. So I could be totally wrong. hahaha

      lol By the looks of it, she even burned her finger in the process. The sacrifices she's made for her Jesus toast.

    • the pink umbrella profile image

      the pink umbrella 

      8 years ago from the darkened forest deep within me.

      Well, ever hear of the law of attraction? you know, before that annoying dvd came out.

      This poor old woman. She spent all that time faking a mericle and we're here having a go at her.

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      8 years ago

      "Do you exist?" makes me think of the Woody Allen quote you shared, "What if nothing exists and we're all in somebody's dream? Or what's worse, what if only that fat guy in the third row exists?" lol

      Quantum physics says both a lot less and a lot more than most people think. You'll often find New Age books claiming positive thinking can really make things happen because of quantum physics; but actually, that's not true at all. Positive thinking may or may not work, but it has nothing to do with quantum physics. Well, I don't want to give you a panic attack, so I'll stop there.

      haha Her liver spots do make the little dipper. Truly like staring into the night sky. And her amazing cleavage makes the North pole.

    • the pink umbrella profile image

      the pink umbrella 

      8 years ago from the darkened forest deep within me.

      Do you exist? Why do you exist? Is it because you believe so much in your own existance and the power of that caused you to be even before you were? haha, i have a thousand crazy maybies in my head at all times. Ever study Quantum physics? Im pretty sure you being so well read, have at leat a grasp on its laws. nothing is impossible, it may be improbable, but never impossible. The circle square thing, ill think about that and get back to you, you may have me stumped there. But every single law of mathematics, is a standard we set as to measure and study. None of its really even real. But weather things are or arent, may or may not be, i cant think about it for too long. It gives me the same panic feeling i get when i stare into the night sky for a long enough time. Oh, and about the old lady, her liver spots create what looks to me like the little dipper.

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      8 years ago

      Hume also thinks nothing is certain. But there are some reasonable certainties. You're reasonably certain I exist, I presume. Right? And reasonably certain there can't be a round square. But hey, nothing wrong with being an agnostic. It's a respectable position.

      hehehe proof of the existince of the Geiko caveman. When I look at that grilled cheese, I see a lonely old lady with way too much time and bread on her hands.

    • the pink umbrella profile image

      the pink umbrella 

      8 years ago from the darkened forest deep within me.

      Well than i guess you can call me an agnostic. As i believe everything is possible (not anything, everything) and nothing is certain. I liked this hub. By the way, that last pic def looks like a grilled cheese cooked in one of those crazy sandwich makers. And why does the pic have to be jesus? I myself see the Geiko caveman!

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      8 years ago

      Howdy Ben,

      I can't speak for all atheists, but on the whole there's a degree of sophistication involved. Even Richard Dawkins, the Lord High Executioner amongst atheists, claims not to be 100% certain. He believes it would be unscientific. So yeah, if he ever finds himself the meat in a Jesus-Buddha sandwich, he may just relent.

      There's an idea for your next hub: Moon Landing Deniers.

      I'm certainly not saying agnostics have less commitment to reason. I'm saying they disagree that there's reasonable certainty for no-god. They also disagree that there's reasonable certain for god. So they hold to reasonable uncertainty in this paradigm.

      Glad you enjoyed the hub, Ben. I hope I don't sound too dogmatic about these things. I've been told I do sometimes sound like I'm teaching rather than discussing. I suck at the socratic wisdom thing.

      Also, You coyly ignored by plot to seduce you. But that's okay. There's still time. hahaha

      Cheers!

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 

      8 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      Well done, thanks Professor (we all need a little ego pumping now and again, or at least I do) now I can go to my plumbing-less camping trip in a few weeks armed with more knowledge about atheists and agnostics, perhaps my brother is an atheist after all. I enjoyed your clarity of language here Arthur and your allowance for reason, you have renewed my faith in atheists everywhere and I'm not being cheeky to use the parlance of my northern neighbors. I sincerely mean that, it always bothered me that atheists wouldn't at least "hedge" their bets!

      In a way, I pictured atheists as people who could/would never believe in anything, as if Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Mohammad and The Buddha would all sail soaring down from the clouds, with a giant glowing orb that changed forms every few seconds and all the aforementioned prophets all read signs in a thousand languages with arrows pointing to the anomaly that said "God" and atheist would still shake their heads and say, "ah it's all smoke and mirrors". Haha, I mean that in an endearing way of course. I met an outspoken atheist once who told me he didn't believe we had put a man on the moon (one of several I've met over the years) and I believe that's where my misconception of atheists has it's roots.

      Also, I guess I'm still a little unclear on the distinction of agnostics, by your definition it sounds like they are less committed to reason and more apt to doubt? Or am I phrasing that incorrectly?

      Very well written Arthur, and thank you for your thoughtful compliment my friend. Atheists are in my lodge now.

    • Ben Zoltak profile image

      Ben Zoltak 

      8 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

      I'll be back to read this one, that last pick is great, "she's married", hehe, ah time to go to work, boo, labor is such a nuisance when I'd rather be debating!

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      8 years ago

      Is it a milkshake? haha

      Yeah, we have milkshakes. But I don't drink 'em. They go straight to my waistline! There's this milkshake from Baskin-Robbins called the Heath Shake. And if you get a large one, wow, 3000 calories in that sucker! Holy crow, imagine that, right?

      It's sweet you're worried about me. ;)

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 

      8 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Don't you have milkshakes in Canada...?

      I'd say "great work"..but I'm worried about your ego.

    • Arthur Windermere profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Windermere 

      8 years ago

      Yep, as soon as I get that sex change and remove his wife from the picture, Ben will be mine.

      Thanks for reading, GL. Glad you enjoyed it. I'm a bit puzzled about what those tunes have to do with my article, but then I still don't know what a malted is either. It seems your comments just naturally mystify me. haha

      Cheers!

    • Green Lotus profile image

      Hillary 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Like the tune "everything old is new again"..or the saying "today's technology is yesterday's magic"..or is it today's trash is yesterday's leftovers? Oh well, your philosophical musings are highly sophisticated and quite brilliant. I really enjoy your undemanding take on life and your enlightened humor...and it appears you are a fan of the great Ben too. Rated up. Here's to the age of reasonableness and discovery.

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