The Problem with Agnostic Atheism

Going back at least as far as Bertrand Russell, there has been a strain of atheism which proponents call agnostic atheism, and a more literal English rendering might be know-nothing atheism. The most sympathetic rendering is something to the effect of:

There is insufficient evidence to prove the existence of God, and the default in the absence of evidence that a thing exists is to assume it does not, so until such evidence exists I’m going to go with the default position that God does not exist.

In practice it can be phrased more parsimoniously:

I assume that there’s no God, and I won’t defend that position.

Quite a bit of effort has gone into explaining why they won’t defend that position. There are all sorts of arguments about the “burden of proof”, which may or may not apply to any particular debate (where it is possible to have rules about who has the burden of proof), but this entirely misses a very significant point. Human beings, as rational creatures, have a duty to the truth. A man who does not seek the truth to the best of his ability is simply a failed human being.

The agnostic atheist takes a position which is basically a form of modified radical skepticism. Most of them are scientismists and consequently they—or at least the ones who’ve put any thought into it—take a position that reason works very slightly, enough that it is possible to use it where confirmation can be gotten by way of control. I.e. they will believe in technology. This is akin to the wife who will only believe that her husband loves her if he constantly buys her the expensive presents she wants but will not specify. She will believe in his love only if she can control it. Past this, all else depends too much on the use of reason to be believable.

The agnostic atheist is, to all appearances, in this basic position. Agnostic atheists mostly deny anything that they don’t want to believe in except that which no one but a devout skeptic would deny. Usually they’ll make a few exceptions for things like political beliefs, but will get angry with you if you point out the contradiction to them. Not impressive, but in itself nothing very remarkable. Plenty of people know little and think about their beliefs less.

But the curious thing about the agnostic atheist is that he thinks himself on the high end of functional, as a rational being, and expects the rest of us to take that view too. In fact, he has demonstrated nothing beyond his not suffering from catastrophic brain damage. He is not as non-functional as it is possible for a human being to be—especially when considered as a clever beast—but he hasn’t really demonstrated any of the higher function of a rational creature: to know. Worse, his banging on about the burden of proof highlights just how little appreciation he has for his duty to investigate. As a rational creature, it’s not our job to do his thinking for him, it’s his job to do his thinking for himself. His complaining loudly and vociferously that we haven’t done a sufficiently good job of doing his thinking for him only calls attention to how little of it he has done for himself.

This manifests further in how very little thought agnostic atheists ever seem to put into considering what the world is, according to their theory of it. Just ask them some time about any particular implications of their views, and they won’t know anything about it. Any of the obvious problems such as, “if there’s no meaning in life, why is murder (that you can get away with) bad?” Most of the time you’ll get some vapid response about not wanting to murder people, as if their lack of ambition is a solution to the general philosophical problem.

And there is something especially telling in the odd insistence which some agnostic atheists place on the idea that all babies are atheists. I think that this is a significant misunderstanding of both babies and knowledge, but it is at least true that babies do not propositionally affirm the existence of God, since they don’t propositionally affirm anything at all. But so what? How can anyone be proud of knowing no more than a baby does? It’s very rhetorically strange for an atheist to say, “Intelligent people might believe in God, and even partial idiots might believe in God, but complete idiots are all atheists!” But it does get to the point. They are claiming to be in a state which is not distinguishable from being an utter failure as a rational being. Which raises the question: are they?

The way to tell, of course, is to find out what they do believe in. What knowledge have they gained in however many decades they’ve been alive, so far? And if the answer is none—that they know nothing, that there are only bets that have generally worked for them reasonably well in the past, or there are sense experiences which they routinely anticipate, or whatever skeptical substitute for knowledge they might have—then perhaps they simply are failed human beings. If a person shirks their duty to learn about the world, they genuinely can avoid learning about it. They can achieve a sort of anthropoid approximation to a cow chewing its cud in its field, unaware of and uninterested in any of the important questions like:

  • what is good?
  • What is the relationship between goodness and happiness?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

The agnostic atheist is in a relatively unassailable position. He does not, in fact, know whether there is a God, and he is in fact assuming that there isn’t one. But he has achieved this unassailable position by a sort of intellectual suicide. He’s done just enough thinking to get to a place where he will never do any more thinking, and there he remains, loudly proclaiming that we should be impressed with him because he knows no more about the world than does an infant in its mother’s arms.

Whether it is possible for us to help him out of this position, and if so how on earth we are to do it, I have no idea. It may be impossible for man. It is all the more fortunate, then, that all things are possible for God. Pray for them.

3 thoughts on “The Problem with Agnostic Atheism

  1. Incorrect. Agnostic atheism involves no assumptions at all. By its very definition, it involves NONbelief, not DISbelief.

    The assumption of something is a belief, which would make it no longer agnostic, by definition.


    1. First, I defined what I meant by “agnostic atheism”, and if you’re actually agnostic, it would be pretty absurd to be a prescriptivist when it comes to language. Second, plenty of atheists themselves use these terms. Third, since people have to live their lives they have to live them consistently with some theory of the universe, so as I clearly indicated, I’m talking about people who live according to the idea that there is no God, though technically they say that they don’t know whether there is.


  2. Pingback: The Problem With Know-Nothing Atheism – Chris Lansdown

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