Given that there is a substantive body of debate between atheism and religion, how can the proposition that the existence of God(s) is unknowable really be defended?


8 Answers 8


As long as there is debate, there can and most likely will be people who don't know which side to choose. I don't think that's strange, because given that there's debate, you must conclude that it isn't just clear which side has the truth. There will be people who think the arguments of both sides may be true, or neither arguments - both situations can reasonably result in not knowing.

Let's take this example with religion. To convince people who don't know to choose a side, there has to be really hard evidence, so that you actually can only 'choose' one side. So when you say agnosticism is undefendable, you'll have to argue that there is such evidence.

Well, what evidence would that be? That there is a God or that there isn't one? As long as both sides can be argued for, there can be people who say they don't know which side has the best arguments, and therefore don't wish to choose a side.

Besides, I don't think there is a thing like evidence possible for religion or atheism. These topics were, are and will be topics for belief and faith, not for reasonings. Agnosticism therefore was, is and will be a 'valid' position, whatever that would mean in this context.

  • "There will be people who think the arguments of both sides may be true, or neither arguments - both situations will result in not knowing." This is false. I agree that the existence of a widespread debate might be taken as a (tenable) reason for remaining agnostic, though. Apr 19, 2013 at 9:12
  • @Eric'3ToedSloth' I changed "will result" to "can reasonably result" - is that what you're hitting at? If not, why is the statement false?
    – user2953
    Apr 19, 2013 at 9:13
  • Your reformulation is better. My point is that a debate about something, no matter how widespread, is fully compatible with knowing, not knowing, or not being knowable at all. A debate might not even be an indicator for one side or the other. You can debate for days or weeks when the next Star Trek series will be aired (based on all kinds of faulty or correct evidence). Some participants might know, others might not know, or the question might not be answerable at all, because there will be no next series. Apr 19, 2013 at 9:24

Given that there is a substantive body of debate between atheism and religion, how can the proposition that the existence of God(s) is knowable really be defended?

In other words, the fact that intelligent and knowledgeable people disagree on a subject and have done so for millennia indicates that there are multiple defensible positions; the this makes it harder to be certain that one particular viewpoint is correct, not easier. When the vast majority of experts on a subject have come to a consensus agreement, then it is quite easy to say that the reality of this matter is in fact "knowable," because we can feel fairly confident that the consensus position is well-supported enough to constitute real knowledge. We know, for instance, that the earth is round rather than flat, because that is the consensus. But the existence of a "substantive body of debate" on a subject means that it is just as unreasonable to claim that we as a society "know" that one side is "right" as it is to claim that the other side is correct. If the existence of such a debate makes the answer to the debate knowable, then surely it must be necessary to actually say which side is "known" to be correct--but if this side is "knowably" correct, then why is there still a debate on the subject?

The fact that there is no such consensus on the existence or nonexistence of any deities implies that we do not know for sure whether or not any God or gods exist; it is upon this very uncertainty and doubt that we predicate our idea of faith. We do not "believe" that the earth is round; we know it. But even those who "know" that some particular God exists generally recognize that this "knowledge" is largely an act of faith, rather than a passive recognition of a truth established through years of debate with atheists that the theists have somehow "won." Similarly, those who believe that God does not exist generally claim that the evidence for the existence of God is insufficient and/or that there is strong evidence against the existence of God, and their personal conclusion based on this evidence and/or lack thereof is that God does not exist. But this does not mean that they know that God exists in the sense that they have "won" the argument against the theists.

This, by the way, is essentially the starting point for Pascal's wager. He says that the evidence for and against God is "stacked infinitely high in both directions," and proceeds to argue that the best course of action is therefore to assume that God exists and act accordingly (and, meanwhile, to try to develop a more genuine form of faith).

  • By the way, someone can see the criticism of Pascal's wager in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_Wager#Criticism Apr 20, 2013 at 22:30
  • ...that's nice, I guess. I've always felt that most criticism of the Wager is founded in a misunderstanding of Pascal's point, but that's not really relevant to the original question. Apr 20, 2013 at 23:21
  • It is relevant in the sense that “Unbelievers who persistently endeavor in an honest, rational effort to search for the truth are commended by Pascal...”. The option to live a good life clearly dominates the option of living an evil life, regardless of belief in a god (Wikipedia). Apr 21, 2013 at 1:24
  • I'm sorry, but I still don't see how that's relevant to this discussion. Apr 21, 2013 at 2:33
  • “This ... the starting point for Pascal's wager ... the best course of action is therefore to assume that God exists and act accordingly (and, meanwhile, to try to develop a more genuine form of faith).” But perhaps one cannot simply believe in God at will; and rationality cannot require the impossible. Pascal is well aware of this objection: “I am so made that I cannot believe", however, he contends that one can take steps to cultivate such belief. Critics may question the psychology of belief formation that Pascal presupposes, pointing out that one could strive to believe, yet fail. (SEP) Apr 21, 2013 at 3:27


Yes. An agnostic takes the position that there exist definitions of god such that it is impossible to acquire sufficient evidence to support or refute that definition. In order to defend this position for a given definition of god, the agnostic merely needs to point out that either the believer could be deceived or that the god could be hidden in some way that defies evidence. Provided the definition allows for either possibility, the agnostic is on solid rhetorical and logical ground.

A classic example would be a deistic god, which is unfalsifiable by definition.

The Long Answer

Depending on definitions, agnosticism is independent of both theism and atheism. Theism is a position of belief: one either believes that there is at least one god or one does not believe that there is at least one god. Agnosticism is a meta-position on the possibility of knowledge: the agnostic does not believe that one can have definitive information about the existence of gods in general. According to wikipedia, there can be agnostic theists, who are uncertain but believe; agnostic atheists, who are uncertain but do not believe; and agnostic apatheists, who are uncertain and don't care.

Agnosticism in this sense is logically defensible simply because there is no means for a mortal human to verify the existence of an immortal god, at best we could verify that some being had godlike powers and a long life span. In our current situation we have no evidence of the existence of any being with godlike powers at all.

Further, some definitions of gods place the god or gods completely outside of any reality that we can observe or access. Such a god is beyond our knowledge and beyond our ability to acquire knowledge by definition, so again, we are forced into a position of agnosticism.

I feel it is important to point out that neither atheism or agnosticism are philosophical positions in and of themselves. (A)theism is an answer to a single question: "Is there a god you believe in?" and (A)gnosticism is an answer to a question "Do you know whether any gods exist or not?"

Looked at from another angle, atheism, theism and agnosticism are claims about the state of the evidence. The atheist claims that they are not in possession of sufficient evidence to convince them that a god exists, and typically operating in the epistemological framework that one ought not accept propositions for which there is not convincing evidence. The theist is making a counter-claim, which is either that they are in possession of sufficient evidence to convince them that a god exists, or that everyone believes things for which they lack sufficient evidence. The typical atheist/theist debate comes down to either evaluation of evidence or epistemology.

The claim that the agnostic is making is much stronger than the claim of the atheist. The atheist claims that they are not aware of any such evidence, that agnostic is claiming that there cannot, in principle, be sufficient evidence that a god exists.

Logically, this is a much more difficult position to defend in general, but can be easily justified on a case-by-case basis. Given, say, the proposition that Zeuss lives on top of the literal Mount Olympus, one cannot be an agnostic. You can go and check. But given the proposition that Zeuss lives on an alternate dimension that cannot be accessed by mortals, you can't get evidence one way or the other, because we've locked the access to the evidence away behind a rhetorical flourish.

  • There is at least one other, better way to characterize (a)theism: as also positions on knowledge. Further, an agnostic has no need to commit to such strong verification conditions for knowledge- or lack thereof.
    – emesupap
    Sep 30, 2022 at 13:27
  • @Papuseme the statement that the exists an alternate view without any explication whatsoever of what that alternate view might entail isn’t terribly helpful.
    – philosodad
    Sep 30, 2022 at 18:34
  • I have provided one in my answer
    – emesupap
    Sep 30, 2022 at 19:14

I think the answer to the question, as asked, is much simpler than it appears. The existence of lots of arguments for mutually exclusive positions has no bearing on the defensibility of some other proposition mutually exclusive with the first two.

If you have a balance with a napkin over it, and one side is lower than another, good arguments might be made that the lower side has one egg on it, or no eggs. People may use lots of convincing arguments. However, the position that the napkin precludes any knowledge of why the balance is in the observed configuration is a position which can be defended. It doesn't mean it's correct, but defensibility is not the same as correctness.

  • We should determine if something is correct first. If it is, there is no need to defend it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 2, 2022 at 13:12

Agnosticism in the religious context is thought by many to be a more reasonable as well as a more conciliatory position than atheism. In fact it is not; it is a fence-sitting position premised on confusions about knowledge and rationality. Strictly speaking, if knowledge is a matter of definitive proof, then we know nothing outside mathematics and logic, and there only because we have defined the terms, axioms and operations from which the ‘truths’ of these formal systems follow. For consider any inductive inference can be called in question by sceptical arguments challenging me to ‘prove’ that I am not asleep and dreaming, or hallucinating, or a brain in a vat. In practice we give the name of knowledge to what has been repeatedly tested and verified, and which forms the basis for other things we think and do. We take knowledge by a repeated empirical or inductive success, and this despite the fact that it cannot be ‘proved’ to the standards of a theorem in mathematics.

The point about the supposed reasonableness of religious agnosticism is that to think there might be supernatural beings or entities in the universe has the same rational ground as thinking that a china teapot is in orbit round the sun. This was Bertrand Russell’s amusing way of pointing out the agnostic’s problem: he cannot prove that there is not a china teapot flying round the sun, so by his lights he must leave open the possibility that there is such a thing, and suspend judgement either way. But obviously enough, every consideration of evidence and reason weighs so heavily against there being such a thing that to entertain the possibility that it might be so, not even to think it equally likely or unlikely, is irrational to the extent of unsoundness.

All one has to do is to think very seriously about what is putatively meant by hypothesizing the existence of supernatural entities or beings, deities, fairies, gnomes, ghosts, consistently with the world as we encounter and investigate it. The gods of Olympus or the Hindu pantheon are at one, evidentially and logically, with the tooth fairy and the flying teapot: if it is a form of unsoundness to continue to believe in the tooth fairy into adult life, and to organize one’s life around its existence, then it is a form of unsoundness to believe in the existence of any of the deities, fairies, gnomes, ghosts. It only seems not to be unsoundness to believe in the gods of traditional religions because doing so has such a weight of historical and social sanction, exploiting the credulity, needs and fears of unreflective adults, though some quite intelligent adults believe, usually convolutedly sophistical versions of such things too.

There is a variety of atheistic positions with respect to different concepts of God. Atheism can be "disbelief-atheism" and "absence-of-belief-atheism". A person might maintain that anthropomorphic gods such as Zeus do not exist and therefore be a "disbelief-atheist" with respect to Zeus and similar gods. However, he can be "absence-of-belief-atheist" with respect to Paul Tillich’s God. Similarly an agnostic can consider the arguments for and against a god's existence and stay undecided, “indecision-agnosticism”, or may not have any arguments at all, "absence-of-belief-agnosticism". If atheism is the claim that, in the absence of evidence for God we should presume that God does not exist, i.e. an “absence-of-belief-atheism” claim, then it seems to match "absence-of-belief-atheism" with "absence-of-belief-agnosticism", i.e. merely the absence of belief in God. On this definition atheism or agnosticism ceases to be a view, and even infants count as atheists or agnostics. I think "disbelief-atheism" and “indecision-agnosticism” require justification.

We do not have a priori disproof that many things do not exist, yet it is reasonable and justified to believe that they do not: flying pink unicorns are not real, there is no Santa Claus, a defendant is not guilty, a patient does not have a particular disease, so on. None of these achieve the level of deductive proof. Believing that something does not exist is reasonable even though no logical impossibility is manifest. Believing that something exist or even being agnostic about their existence on the basis of their mere possibility would not be justified.

Sensible people don’t believe in elves, fairies, or the bogeyman under the bed. You look under the bed at random times, check the locks on windows and doors, make discreet inquiries about other beds in the neighborhood, and so forth.You then might point out that common sense and science wouldn’t get very far if they took every such mere ‘‘logical’’ possibility equally seriously. At a certain point, we simply have to rely on ‘‘inference to the best explanation’’ of all the evidence we can get, and accept, at least provisionally, conclusions that have been shown in this way to be true ‘‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’’These are not processes that anyone yet seriously understands, but they are ones on which jury trials and the rest of our lives manifestly depend.This argument doesn’t justify mere agnosticism: people are presumably not agnostic about bogeymen; rather, it justifies full disbelief. What’s bad enough for bogeymen is bad enough for God.

No matter how distinctive religious or faith's experiences may be, it’s perfectly obvious that they themselves can’t establish much of anything beyond themselves, any more than dreams of ghosts do: what would need to be shown is that God or ghosts would be the best explanation of those experiences; but this no one has even seriously begun to do. Indeed, ask yourself how local, personal experiences could possibly provide serious evidence for the existence of a necessary,eternal, omni-being responsible for the creation of the world. How does the presence of such a being feel differently from that of a merely contingent, finitely old and powerful one? How does one know one is in the presence of the genuine creator of everything ? Imagine someone claiming the universe was fifteen billion years old only on the basis of a gut feeling. In addition to maybe securing some corroborative evidence for such lavish claims, it would, of course, also be a good idea to run some controlled experiments on such experiences to rule out the effects of, for example, lively and hyperbolic imaginations, wishful thinking, and, of course, the massive religious indoctrination imposed on everyone in our culture since earliest childhood.

The philosopher Plantinga reasonably claims that many of our ordinary beliefs based on memory and perception are not arrived at by conscious reasoning, for example, to a best explanation of one’s experience, but are automatically ‘‘triggered’’or ‘‘occasioned’’ by experience, involving little or no reasoning at all. For example,someone doesn’t infer from certain sensations that she remembers seeing a cat last week; she just remembers seeing one. Whether or not she arrived at this belief by a ‘‘justified’’ route, she is ‘‘warranted’’ in believing she saw a cat insofar as her eyes and memory are reliable.

Plantinga then proceeds to claim that human beings are endowed with a special faculty, a ‘‘sensus divinitatus,’’ which similarly doesn’t provide so much a rational basis for religious belief as a means by which such belief ‘‘is triggered or occasioned by a wide variety of circumstances, including the marvelous, impressive beauty of the night sky; the timeless crash and roar of the surf that resonates deep within us; the majestic grandeur of the mountains,’’ not to mention ‘‘awareness of guilt’’. The question is whether, on reflection, there is any independent reason to think that extravagant beliefs occasioned by mountain peaks and free-floating guilt are in fact caused by the reliable operation of a sensus divinitatus–detecting God. Of course there isn’t, any more than there’s any reason to think that beliefs about ghosts ‘‘occasioned’’ by misty graveyards and decrepit old houses are caused by real ghosts much less through the operation of a ‘‘sensus spiritatus’’. And that’s partly because there’s no reason to think that ghosts or God exists.

There is no evidence that a religious faith that rejects reason would also serve us while seeking truth. If faith is the only way to know the truth of God, how are we to know which God to have faith in? Rational argument can not reach the believers because the believers had declared that it can not by his own decree. I don't see how anyone can protest that his beliefs ought to be immune to the standards of objective investigation, simply by claiming that they are held on the basis of faith. It is the true horror of faith. Faith leads people to believe in something, it doesn't matter what, without a whisper of doubt, or a whiff of evidence, and believe so strongly in some cases, that they are prepared to kill and die for it, without the need for further justification. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. Just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. Why is religion such a potent source of violence? If someone doesn't value evidence, what evidence would you invoke to prove he should value evidence? Faith is a conversation stopper.

  • So... this is a yes?
    – Ryan Frame
    Apr 19, 2013 at 2:54
  • @RyanFrame Yes, believing that something exist or even being agnostic about their existence on the basis of their mere possibility would not be justified. Believing that something does not exist is reasonable even though no logical impossibility is manifest. There is no Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, and Holy Trinity. Apr 19, 2013 at 3:23
  • @RyanFrame There is a new question post, therefore I post a new answer too. Apr 19, 2013 at 14:15

I think first that it should be noted that the vast majority of people who are religous are so because they grew up in a community where this was a given. Choice doesn't really come into it. Culture and religion in these communities are inextricably intertwined. This is as true for the various forms of athiesms/materialistic philosophies that develop as a reaction to theistic positions.

It should also be acknowledged that religious people can be irreligous and the irreligous religous.

Secondly reason is not why religious adhere to religion, or why indeed a new religion comes into being. The force for this comes from elsewhere. Reason is almost always a rationalisation of ones position. It happens after the fact. It may also have to do with the prestige of Reason within Western discourse. This is not just true of religions but also for the arts.

Faith and Belief are the key elements in religion. When probed by reason the support will seem flimsy; but this is obvious because they were not built on rational grounds. The perspective is wrong. A better view is to look at it anthropologically and see what that faith and its performance in thought and in ritual and action does for him and his community.

So how do we characterise the agnostic? We must give at least a context. Lets us say Christianity. He straddles a border between thiesm and non-thiesm. He was either born there, or rejected a tradition but there is no emotionally compelling reason for him to move directly into the habitus of a new tradition.

That God is unknowable - is not just an agnostic position but also a respectable position in both Islam - where it is the mainstream opinion & Christianity - where it goes under the name Negative Theology.

What about existence?

When one asserts the existence of God, what does this claim mean? It certainly is not the same as the existence of the Planet Pluto - Ash'arite Islamic Theology and the Catholic Theologian Aquinas placed God outside of space & time. But this is simply a negative claim. It does not mean we know where He is, only where he is not.

It seems that existence is unknowable in the positive sense. It can only be asserted and affirmed by faith and belief.

All this of course ignores the possibility of direct cognisance - Revelation in Christianity and tearing away the veil in Islam. This form of knowledge is only available to a few, in both traditions - to Prophets.

  • I thought Pluto was not a planet?
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 2, 2022 at 2:59

It is this simple: Without doubt there would be no faith. Who would believe in god if we knew he/she existed? Atheism is a faith, because it has an element of belief (in that god does NOT exist). Agnostics get my vote – nobody knows anything. Why choose to believe at all?? Believers in anything will always be suspicious in my mind :-)

  • 1
    Everyone. Everyone would believe in God if we knew they existed, much as everyone believes in Brad Pitt. Like him or hate him, dude exists. Atheism (as used by most self-described atheists) is not an assertion of knowledge one way or the other, it is an assertion that the individual in question is not convinced that a god exists.
    – philosodad
    Jul 7, 2022 at 22:00
  • @philosodad I just wonder if I have to believe in something I know?
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 2, 2022 at 2:55
  • @ScottRowe I'm a skeptic, so to me, all knowledge is uncertain. So I would say "yes". I believe that other people exist, but I cannot be absolutely certain. But in any case, the faith argument isn't even self-consistent for Abrahamic religions, as their scripture is full of people who know for a fact God exists and argue with him anyway.
    – philosodad
    Oct 2, 2022 at 16:43

OP begins with "Given the substantial debate between X, how can agnosticism about X be defended?"

First, its unclear that substantial debate about X implies some global agnosticism, unless your conditions for knowledge are very strong. Otherwise, recall that there is substantial debate about the reality of an external world and about whether there is a moral reality. And yet most people take themselves to have knowledge of these things.

Second, let's characterize agnosticism. Now, it is clear that in online circles, (a)theism has come to mean something along the lines of "belief (or lack thereof) that God does exist". One then characterizes agnosticism as something along the lines of knowledge. Such discussion, while popular, is somewhat obscure, giving us terms like "agnostic theist". The parallel here would be "agnostic (about moral realism) moral realist", which is confusing. Further, this discussion does not reflect the current state of the literature, hence is doubly confusing for those who attempt to read. (I don't think it has been popular since Flew- someone may check me on this).

Rather it is better to characterize for philosophical purposes (a)theism as the position that claims that God does (not) exist, where this claiming is a position of knowledge and (for most people) straightforwardly implies belief. Agnosticism is then still the following - that neither belief in or against the existence of God is epistemically justified. This has the upshot of making the transition into the literature far smoother, as well as quickly entering the philosophical discussion. Rather than discuss somone's beliefs- for which they may, or may not have evidence for, we instead discuss their claimed knowledge. Certainity may then be modeled in degrees (if one is a bayesian) or pushed to the side if merely psychological.

Under the second model, it is easy to see how substantial debate about God's existence or lack thereof does not imply some global agnosticism. Arguments are judged on their merits, and it is up to the user to come to a decision about whether such arguments stand, fail, or are in need of further evaluation.

  • There was no mention in the question about global agnosticism. The question was how agnosticism could (or presumably could not) be defended, given the existence of debate. Unfortunately, while you “characterized” agnosticism in your answer, you did not define it, and it’s unclear from this answer how one would or would not defend that position.
    – philosodad
    Sep 30, 2022 at 18:41
  • @philosodad sure, the agnositicism in question was not specified in OP, so they weren't necessarily talking about your characterization either. But in any case, I have provided both characterizations for comparison.
    – emesupap
    Sep 30, 2022 at 19:17
  • underneath the comparison I have given, the defense for agnosticism wrt God's existence is exactly the same as the defense for agnosticism wrt, say, the existence of an external world, or moral reality.
    – emesupap
    Sep 30, 2022 at 19:19
  • I think we have rather more evidence for the existence of an external world.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 2, 2022 at 2:53
  • @ScottRowe sure, structurally the defense is the same, but of course the devil is in the details
    – emesupap
    Oct 2, 2022 at 4:25

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