Atheism and agnosticism (really, apisticism) as belief

First I will grant that agnosticism (a better word for this being ‘apisticism’) is neutral in order to make the claim that atheism is a belief because it lacks the neutrality of apisticism. Then I will challenge the neutrality of apisticism by arguing out that to claim to be apistic once one has examined the evidence, is to (in bad faith) be no longer neutral, so that both claims—to be atheist, or to be apistic—reflect belief.

I. Negative belief is belief nonetheless

A common claim of many atheists is that atheism is not a belief, but a lack of one. However, a lack of belief in either a theist or atheist direction is apisticism (a lack of knowledge is agnosticism)—someone who lacks belief about god(s) believes neither that god(s) exists (theism), nor that no god(s) exists (atheism). So to claim the title ‘atheist’ is to believe there are no god(s) (positive belief) at the same time one disbelieves in the existence of god(s) (negative belief). Negative belief is belief nonetheless. As mentioned in the 115th Philosophers’ Carnival, Sam Harris writes in “The Moral Landscape” that, according to his doctoral research, belief and disbelief both “showed highly localized signal changes in the caudate” (p. 226, note 35)—it’s because disbelief is a manifestation of belief. Here is a simple way to display this:

Let it be assumed that “the existence of god(s)” is x, and “the nonexistence of god(s)” is y. x is not-y, and y is not-x.

Atheism is both:
Positive belief: I believe in the non-existence of god(s). I believe in y (or, I believe in not-x).
Negative belief: I do not believe in the existence of god(s). I do not believe in x (or, I do not believe in not-y).

Theism is both:
Positive belief: I believe in the existence of God(s). I believe in x (or, I believe in not-y).
Negative belief: I do not believe in the non-existence of God(s). I do not believe in y (or, I do not believe in not-x).

Apisticism is none of the above. “I don’t believe either way—I don’t believe in the existence of god(s) and I don’t believe in the non-existence of God(s).” “I believe in ~x and ~y,” which is equivalent to “I do not believe in x or y”.

There are positive and negative aspects to every belief, whether or not it is an “ism”. For example…

Let it be assumed that “the sun will rise” is x, and “the sun will not rise” is y. As before, x is ~y, y is ~x.

The Sun Will Rise
Positive: I believe the sun will rise. I believe x (or, I believe ~y).
Negative: I do not believe the sun will not rise. I do not believe y (or, I do not believe ~x).

The Sun Will Not Rise
Positive: I believe the sun will not rise. I believe y (or, I believe ~x).
Negative: I do not believe the sun will rise. I do not believe x (or, I do not believe ~y).

Apisticism is none of the above. “I don’t believe either way—I don’t believe the sun will not rise, but I don’t believe the sun will rise, either.” “I believe ~x and ~y,” which is equivalent to “I do not believe x or y”.

When we doubt a certain belief, it is because we think its alternative holds some weight—we kinda already believe (positive belief) the alternative belief, and kinda already disbelieve (negative belief) our current one. To disbelieve is to believe the alternative. If an atheist truly lacked belief either way, they would not claim to be an atheist, but would instead claim to be apistic (more commonly mislabelled agnostic).

When there is enough evidence in to make a decision, there is a sense in which apisticism can be a case of “choosing not to choose,” which Sartre called “bad faith”.

II. Agnosticism (really, apisticism) as belief

First discussed was the issue of atheism as belief, objecting that if someone is truly neutral on the existence of god(s), s/he is actually agnostic (again, a better word for this is ‘apistic’), neither theist, nor atheist. However, also discussed was that there is a point at which apisticism amounts to bad faith. This section will focus on this, adding that one can only be apistic about the existence of god(s) if one does not ‘claim’ to be either atheist, theist or apistic. Once one makes a claim, one is no longer neutral.

Theists who have reasons for their belief say that there is enough good evidence that atheists and skeptics fail to critically examine, and claim that it is therefore atheists and skeptics who have blind faith.

Skeptics have blind faith? you ask. It is good to be skeptical and examine all of our beliefs and evidence, but to maintain a skeptical (agnostic, apistic) position is deciding not to decide what we believe. One can say “I am apistic” (or agnostic, or skeptical) if one is not claiming it as a position—if one is in the process of examining the evidence and has not rendered a verdict. But, if one is done examining, one only claims neutral ground in bad faith. Why?…

The evidence for God is in, or there isn’t going to be any. This is especially true if one’s God concept includes goodness and love, because either there has been a demonstration of that good love by now, or there isn’t going to be one. To stick with “I don’t know” is about as honest as choosing not to choose, which Sartre rightly termed “bad faith“. It is like voting using the “eenie meenie miney” method, or the “what s/he said” method, without ever doing any real research.

Most atheists and skeptics who deny they “believe” do so to distance themselves from “believers”—people who they feel are of necessarily blind faith. However, all beliefs lacking absolute certainty involve some degree of faith, not all faith is blind, and blind faith is nowhere found in the Bible. Good faith (epistemologically speaking) is a lack of doubt due to such doubts being answered by strong evidence.

My challenge to atheists, theists and apistics alike is to deal honestly with faith and examine the basis for their belief—what evidence answers their doubts? See this article for evidence of a God who has demonstrated his good, loving essence.

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About Maryann

Maryann Spikes is the past President of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. She blogs at Ichthus77, and loves apologetics and philosophy. In particular she loves to study all things Euthyphro Dilemma and Golden Rule. A para-educator (autism) for five years, she holds a Certificate in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, an AA in Humanities via Modesto Junior College, and moonlights as a freelancer. You can follow her on Twitter @Ichthus77, connect with the Ichthus77 community on Facebook, or look her up on Google+.
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6 Responses to Atheism and agnosticism (really, apisticism) as belief

  1. Anonymous says:

    But what if the evidence really is, when you've looked at an awful lot of it rather closely, pretty evenly balanced either way? Isn't 'agnostic' (or philosophical) then the right word.

  2. Hi Anonymous :) I wouldn't equate being a philosopher with being a skeptic (especially when the evidence is 'not' evenly balanced). However, supposing the evidence is evenly balanced–yes–agnostic (though I prefer 'apistic') is the right word for the right position, but not in the case of the existence of God, for the reason stated above. Besides, neither atheists nor theists would say it is evenly balanced. Most (self-proclaimed) agnostics wouldn't even say it is evenly balanced.

  3. Martin at Enigmania featured my article in the most recent Philosophers' Carnival (thankyou!) saying, “Maryann Spikes thinks of Atheism and agnosticism (really, apisticism) as belief (at Ichthus77), and also thinks that you can only be apistic if you don't claim to be.”

    I wanted to post my reply and chew on a way to clarify things w/in the post: “Thanks for featuring my article Martin :) It's interesting you point out that on the one hand I consider apisticism to be a belief while on the other hand I think that one can only be apistic (completely lacking belief) if one doesn't claim to be. Hopefully those interested will catch that it is the 'claimed' apisticism I refer to as belief…and Huxley's idea of agnosticism (a process of questioning, as opposed to a conclusion) that most closely synchs w/ the sort of apisticism that is a true lack of belief. Pardon the confusion. Lovely pahty.” But also see my reply directly above. Slightly more complicated in the case of the (non-)existence of God.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I want to start here:

    “Let it be assumed that 'the existence of god(s)' is x, and 'the nonexistence of god(s)' is y. x is not-y, and y is not-x.”

    So far, so good: since y is just the negation of x, x and ~y really are logically equivalent, as are y and ~x. This is just another way of saying “x if and only if ~~x”. In other words, “x if and only if ~y” and “y if and only if ~x” are true sentences. It would seem to follow that, provided our beliefs are logically consistent, we will believe x if and only if we believe ~y, and believe y if and only if we believe ~x.

    But consider this:

    “Apisticism is none of the above. 'I don’t believe either way—I don’t believe in the existence of god(s) and I don’t believe in the non-existence of God(s).' 'I believe in ~x and ~y,' which is equivalent to 'I do not believe in x or y'.”

    From what we established above, it turns out that “I believe in ~x” is equivalent to “I believe in y.” And “I believe in ~y” is equivalent to “I believe in x.” If the the apistic really assents to “I believe in ~x and ~y,” then, on this account, she believes (x & ~x) and (y & ~y). The person who was supposed to not believe either way ends up believing both ways.

    Clearly, then, “I believe in ~x and ~y” is not a good way of rendering “I don't believe in x or y.”

    This indicates that belief in ~x is not the same as non-belief in x. They are compatible, certainly, but logically separable. (They'd better be–there are all kinds of propositions I've never even entertained, but that doesn't mean I believe their negations!)

    Your definitions of the terms here are really only plausible if one accepts your premises, viz. (a) “the evidence for God is in”(ostensibly with the corollary that that everyone is privy to that evidence), and (b) any time you doubt the truth of some proposition p for which you have evidence, you at least kinda believe ~p.

    This is apparently why atheists must, by definition, believe ~x rather than merely not believe x, and why no one can know that they're a confirmed apistic (where “confirmed apistic” is defined as having looked at the evidence and come out with absolutely no belief in either direction).

    But few if any non-believers will accept that any evidence for God is in, and apistics are likely to say that there's simply no evidence at all on either side. And there are no arguments here to dissuade them from these views. So what is actually being accomplished with this?

    *I know you wrote that “the evidence for God is in, or there isn't going to be any.” But if I accept the second disjunct there, I may also consistently accept there isn't going to be any evidence for the NON-existence of God, and happily continue not believing x without believing ~x.

  5. Anonymous (same Anonymous I spoke to earlier? lol) —

    While it is true to say one cannot both (logically) believe in x and y, it is not true to say that one must “either” believe in x “or” believe in y–one could believe in “neither” (one could “not” believe–be apistic) (except see my replies above). You are absolutely right that just because we are examining the evidence for a proposition (which is not presently a belief), does not necessarily mean we believe (“confirmed belief”) it's negation. However…when we are doubting a present belief, it is because we kinda already believe its negation.

    The only “good faith” apisticism/agnosticism is one in which the person is still examining the evidence, and is doing all she can to obtain it.

    “I may also consistently accept there isn't going to be any evidence for the NON-existence of God, and happily continue not believing x without believing ~x.”

    Well 1) you must honestly ask yourself what you believe, given you believe the evidence is in–you believe “something” about th existence of God, 2) such a belief (about there being no evidence) would be inconsistent with the reality that there actually are arguments for (and against) the nonexistence of God: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existence_of_God

    “So what is actually being accomplished with this?” See the challenge in my last paragraph. I was hoping I wouldn't have to do the footwork (hence the challenge), but here is what I've got done so far… http://www.examiner.com/apologetics-in-modesto/list-of-articles-on-evidence-for-god

    Have a good weekend Anonymous :)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous 1:41 again (not the same as the first Anonymous, though)–

    The mere existence of arguments for a position does not entail that there is evidence for that position. It only suggests that someone thinks there is evidence for that position.

    That evidential status of various claims made by theists is, as you surely know, disputed. A non-believer is under no compunction to accept that “the evidence is in” as a prerequisite to engaging in the debate.

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