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?

  • 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. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA May 3 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 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 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). – hide_in_plain_sight May 5 at 4:06

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 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 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 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. – Guy Inchbald May 4 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. – Guy Inchbald May 4 at 11:37

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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