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Agnosticism is typically understood as maintaining the general premise that there are insufficient rational grounds for either accepting or rejecting claims like "God exists" or "God does not exist".

By contrast, theism affirms that God (or perhaps Gods) does in fact exist, while atheism affirms that no gods exist (the lacking belief definition seems muddy to me). Now, it seems fair to say that atheism can be applied to particular cases as well. A Christian, for example, positively believes that Allah does not exist, and is in that sense an atheist when it comes to Islam.

But it seems to me that if one is going to be an agnostic, one might as well be an atheist towards most religions given that these faiths seem to positively claim that there are rational grounds for accepting their beliefs. Christianity and Islam, for instance, are clear that we have been given all the rational signs we require for belief, and that deep down we know that God exists. Thus, a reasoned form of agnosticism ought to rule out these religions and collapse into a kind of atheism (with respect to these cases).

Is this a correct understanding of agnosticism and its relationship with world religions? Or am I misunderstanding something?

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  • Belief in God's existence (or not) and faith in a religion (one of many) are not the same thing. Obviously, if you are a "supporter" of religion X, you believe that the dogma of X are the correct ones and what is asserted by e.g. religion Y is false. May 3, 2020 at 17:35
  • Right. I simply mean that it does no good to rationally defend an agnosticism towards most modern religions, because most religions assert that there is enough evidence to make their beliefs more rational than competing hypotheses (which the agnostic does not accept).
    – natojato
    May 4, 2020 at 0:21
  • A refresh in terms is needed. The concepts of theism, atheism and agnosticism are clear and distinct for people who UNDERSTAND CONCEPTS. This means be consistent if you are going to do this anyway. Theism is the belief in a diety. Athiesm is NOT THE LACK OF BELIEF in a diety. Athiesm is the REFUSAL TO BELIEVE in a diety. You have some literal sentence readers out their that do not understand concepts & are unclear & inconsistent with terms. Agnosticism is in the middle of theism and athiesm. Agnosticism expresses one is UNSURE if there is a diety or is there is no deity.
    – Logikal
    May 4, 2020 at 19:29
  • This new concept of 'being athiest toward' is just not useful. It makes everybody, not just agnosics, "atheist toward" the vast majority of religions. Then why pick on agnostics? Everyone is in the same boat except extreme syncretists (who combine a mess of religions into a single meta-religion) and integrationist depth psychologists (who both believe and don't believe in all spiritual experiences at the same time). May 5, 2020 at 4:06
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    There is a misunderstanding in believing that Christians don't believe Allah exists. There is an ecumenical movement of dialog and finding of cross overs between abrahamic religions, embracing the idea that beyond different practices it is the same God that is worshipped. Not all accept it, or adopt it to various degrees, but it's definitely a thing. Also people can be variously agnostic towards different beliefs. One could be fully agnostic toward an impersonal God but firmly reject the God of the old testament who is supposed to both be full of love and drown innocent children in the Flood.
    – armand
    Feb 1, 2023 at 1:07

4 Answers 4

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This question reveals a degree of confusion about how one evaluates claims.

In general, one has one of four viewpoints about a claim: 1) There is currently insufficient information/evidence/support to draw any conclusion about the claim, 2) There is sufficient information/evidence/support to accept the claim, 3) there is sufficient information/evidence/support to reject the claim, 4) the claim is poorly structured to such a degree that it is unevaluable.

Position 1 is ignorance. If one cares about a subject, then one should investigate the claim, with the goal of moving into one of the other three categories.

Positions 2 and 3 require evidence/support to be reasonably held. As does position 4, which is a more thorough repudiation of the claim than is position 3.

As defined by TH Huxley, agnosticism vs Gods is position 4, not position 1, which is a common modern misuse of the term. Agnostics per Huxley would consider God claims to be "not even wrong". And yes, they would be functionally atheists.

But leaping from ignorance, position 1, to adopting negation, position 3, is not a rationally valid option.

I note that you DID include an argument/support/evidence -- basically "if God should be intrinsically obvious to us, and I don't find God obvious, or even personally relevant at all, then it is reasonable to dismiss/reject God." Your providing this argument, shows that you are NOT in absolute ignorance in position 1, that argument is at least some justification to move a reasonable person OFF pure ignorance, and toward rejection.

You care about this question, or you would not be posting here. You clearly WANT to adopt position 3. A warning that anyone on a philosophy board should recognize is that we humans tend to seek confirmation bias. Your support argument relies upon the presumption of the two theist movements big cited being true. A good philosopher would recognize that the theists claimed presumption may not be any more true than their conclusion. AND a good philosopher would not be satisfied with only one supporting argument/justification for your conclusion.

Further, a REALLY good philosopher will not only question your own justifications, but would seek out the strongest COUNTER evidences/justifications you can find.

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One way the Atheist/Agnostic division is conceptually understood is as a question of epistemic strength regarding a suggested proposition that "Nothing exists that might be appropriately called a god or God". An Atheist thinks there is sufficient reason to believe such a proposition - an Agnostic thinks that there is not. (Both would in agreement that there is not good reason to support the contrapositive)

(There is sometimes a distinction drawn between Strong Atheism, which affirms that no Gods exist at all, and Weak Atheism, which affirms that nothing that they believe in is a God. This is a question about the scope of the existence claim - both Strong and Weak Atheists ought to agree to the statement, but Strong Atheism simply asserts that this is the case of a Final, True Metaphysics, which a Weak Atheist need not, being content to talk about their own ontology.)

One common Atheist position is, as you say, to cite the consistent failure of religious traditions as supporting evidence of an inference to the best explanation. This is, practically, quite a useful piece of abductive reasoning, in that if there is no good practical reason to support any positive claim to God's existence then one might as well assume that it does not and save one's self the cognitive or emotional labour involved in trying to leave room for it.

However, there are also good practical reasons for a position of suspending that belief. Some positions regarding theological discourse are Anti-Realist, which is to say that "God" is primarily a matter of a language which comes apart from a straightforward reading of concrete facts. The suggestion is not that "God does not exist" is true or false, but rather that neither "God does exist" nor "God does not exist" are wholly transparently apt to being true or false. I might hold, for example, that there are alternative translations of what Theists are talking about that makes some of their utterances about God true or false in select ways, and others that might just not make sense.

The Atheist position (in either Strong or Weak form) is a realist one, in that they accept that truth-conditional sense is made of what it means to be a god or God, but reject that there are any. The belief to the effect that no gods or Gods exist commits us to an interpretation of what "gods or Gods" might be. As such, this technology of anti-realist interpretation is harder for them to justify.

Agnostics are not obliged to settle on a theology in order to ground their absence of beliefs in reason, where Atheists must have some settled interpretation of what truth conditions ground their use of language in affirming that God does not exist. This flexibility of interpretation is of further practical value when engaging with others who do have theological beliefs that inform their behaviour, or when dealing with a plurality of possible traditions of theological beliefs.

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It is quite wrong to suggest that all Christians deny the existence of Allah. Many regard "Allah" as merely the Islamic name for God. Indeed, Mohammed himself taught in the Koran that Christians and Jews, "the People of the Book" (i.e. of the Old Testament) worshipped Allah under their own names for Him. Moreover in Islam, Jesus is the second most important prophet after Mohammed. A Christian - or a Muslim - who treats God and Allah as opposing forces is not an atheist in the eyes of the other but a fool and a heretic.

An atheist denies that any such God or Gods exist, no matter what names you may bring to bear.

The whole point of agnosticism is to refuse to accept that belief in atheism of any kind is rational, any more than theism is.

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  • I think it's a bit stronger than warranted to hold the agnostic and atheist as opposed as regards rationality. An agnostic could quite genuinely say that an atheistic position might be rational without actually holding it. If one lives in a society and culture where definitions of theological posits are essentially completely settled then it could well be reasonable to maintain a firm stance as regards those posits; I do not live in such a society, but I would be sympathetic to an atheistic view of someone who was.
    – Paul Ross
    May 3, 2020 at 20:23
  • When I say that Christians believe in the non-existence of Allah, I mean they disbelieve in the particular God of Islam, not in the generic Hebrew God. The reality is that these are incompatible religions with different theologies, and therefore they do not believe in the same particular God.
    – natojato
    May 4, 2020 at 0:14
  • "The whole point of agnosticism is to refuse to accept that atheism of any kind is rational, any more than theism is." Of course, this means that atheism and theism are held as equally rational, by definition. Yet, most modern forms of theism do not maintain this (as I mentioned in the question, many religions affirm that atheism is irrational), and thus should be rejected as far as one accepts any kind of strong or weak agnosticism.
    – natojato
    May 4, 2020 at 0:16
  • One could say that while an agnostic holds that atheism is not in itself irrational, it is almost a tautology to say that the agnostic sees believing atheism to be correct as irrational. I have edited my reply accordingly. May 4, 2020 at 11:31
  • @natojato Define "particular God" in the context of monotheism. This dicing and slicing of Gods is not common among monotheists. If you and I were to disagree as to whether the British Prime Minister has white or yellwo hair, we are not arguing about different particular Prime Ministers but about the particular attributes of one and the same gentleman Similarly, the various monotheistic sects tend to see themselves as disagreeing about the nature of the One God whom they all believe in. May 4, 2020 at 11:37
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In current everyday use, an atheist doesn't believe in gods and an agnostic takes the view that you can't be sure whether there are gods or not. I think your application of the word atheism to describe a disbelief in some gods and not others is unhelpful and un-necessary. That use of the term would mean a devote Catholic was an atheist (towards Krishna, say), which seems to me to debase the meaning of the word atheism.

Leaving terminology aside, yes, a sane agnostic should take the view that while it is impossible to prove whether or not there are gods generally, the claims of individual theistic religions are clearly nonsense.

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