How can people call themselves atheists if it's impossible to prove that there's no god? The most logical position to assume would be agnosticism no? Not trying to pick a fight, I'm a bit lost in all of this.
It’s not impossible to know that there are no gods. Recall, there isn’t one concept; there are many. No one seriously entertains the idea that Hercules or Zeus or Wotan or Baal might exist. Though there were people who once revered these deities, very few people, if any, revere them in the modern day. Near universally, such deities have been written off as myth.
Agnosticism and atheism aren’t mutually exclusive. Epistemically speaking, agnosticism is a position of knowledge whilst atheism is a position of belief. An agnostic may believe or disbelieve, but will not claim to know whether the given proposition is true. An atheist is simply one who lacks belief in all gods. An agnostic atheist is an atheist who doesn’t believe but doesn’t claim to know that a given god doesn’t exist in all cases. Michael Martin calls this negative atheism. Positive atheism or gnostic atheism is lack of belief plus a claim to knowledge. Such an atheist will claim to know that in all cases, gods do not exist.
Gnostic atheism is entirely possible. If you consider the development of god concepts over time, you’ll see how the idea was initially more primitive. Gods were confined to terrestrial phenomena (e.g. crop gods). Then we slowly acquired control of crop growth and the utility these gods had for our explanations was no longer there. Then we had gods of the elements (e.g. Neptune; Zeus). We then acquired a knowledge of how these things happen naturally and the utility these gods had with regards to our explanations became obsolete. The gods that are now in fashion—the mono and henotheistic gods that have been in fashion since, at least, Zoroastrianism—are gods that are transcendent, omnipotent, etc. These gods not only govern the elements via their sovereignty, but they created the universe. As I argued recently (see here), even the nonexistence of these gods can be demonstrated with a high degree of certainty.
In any case, it doesn’t have to be so black and white—i.e. negative/agnostic versus positive/gnostic. A pure agnostic is entirely possible, for example. Such a person wouldn’t claim belief either way; this person wouldn’t qualify as a theist, deist, atheist, etc. All they would maintain is a lack of knowledge with regards to the existence of gods. Also, one is free to be gnostic toward some gods whilst agnostic toward others. One, for example, could state that they know Yahweh doesn’t exist and yet be unsure when concerning the Brahman or Spinoza’s god. Since atheism, theism, etc. are positions of belief, like any belief, they’ll be accompanied by a spectrum—one that gauges one’s level of certainty. On atheism, one’s level of certainty would vary from one god to the next. The same with systems of belief like theism and pantheism. To identify as an atheist, all that’s required is lack of belief. Knowledge concerning the nonexistence of this or that god isn’t required. I would argue, however, that in most cases, knowledge will be sought.
Are you an agnostic atheist? Because I came out to my father that I'm an agnostic atheist, and he said that atheism is just another form of religion. To be 100% sure that there is no god is the same as saying you are 100% sure there is a god. I agree with my father, and I've been asking other atheist tumblrs if they agree with this line of reasoning. (and my definition of agnostic atheist is that there is a possibility there may be a god but I strongly think there is none.)
I am very much an agnostic atheist, but I would disagree that gnostic atheism is a religion in itself. The evidence for a god at ANY step of the process, from the creation of the universe to the creation of life to everyday “miracles”, is completely non-existent. I have various personal fancy scenarios that cause me to stay agnostic, but just because one is personally certain that there is no god does not make that person religious. At worst it may indicate a lack of imagination.
Could you possibly make a post in the future explaining your transition from agnostic atheist to gnostic atheist?
If it were possible, I would. This transition, however, didn’t happen in such a linear manner. It isn’t, for example, like a destination. I can, for instance, describe how I can walk from Williamsburg in Brooklyn to Union Square in Manhattan. I can’t do that with this transition unfortunately. It was far more gradual.
An accumulation of knowledge played an integral part in that transition. If you read my Arguments For Atheism, you’ll see what I mean. Gnostic atheism, to my mind, wouldn’t be possible without, for instance, a knowledge of contemporary cosmology. Without that knowledge, one wouldn’t be able to completely discard talk of the possibility of a creative agent. One could, for example, be easily swayed by the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which quite often makes use of a perfunctory grasp of Big Bang cosmology. Without a knowledge of religion’s history—a knowledge that, in my case, definitely isn’t complete or full—one wouldn’t be able to see how x religion influenced y religion.
You can therefore see this as a summary of how one makes that transition. Read, consult the experts, ask questions, and acquire knowledge. Read naturalistic accounts of how religion emerged (e.g. Marx, Freud, Malinowski, Feuerbach, etc.). Ask yourself if they make sense? Does Marx’s economic explanation hold water? Does Freud’s psychological explanation have sway? Is this explanation more pluralistic? I would say that it is. I will endeavor to build on their work and provide a more contemporary explanation at some point in the future.
Thanks for the question! I hope my reply was in some sense satisfying.
How do you “know” there is no God? And also, are you saying that agnostics are just a kind of atheist? And if so, an atheist that is not agnostic must then claim that there is no God, and in that way, believe that there is no God. What do you think?
Your first question deserves a far more elaborate reply than the one I’m about to give you, but fret not, you can purchase my ebook when it’s available for sale and get your answer. In brief, there are a number of ways I can answer that question.
For starters, the claim to exclusive truth, the claim at the heart of Christianity and Islam, is a byproduct of historical and anthropological development–the latter of these I further break down into cultural and sociopolitical components. So if you cannot show that the claim of exclusive truth is true to the religion’s original form, assuming you can even locate that, then the claim developed much later. Also, if you can trace changes in the religion, changes in doctrine, in rituals, and so on, then you may find that this religion has a human-made origin and therefore, was not divinely inspired. Since gods are always tied to some religion, organized or not, gods don’t exist. In other words, if I trace Christianity’s history and find, like many others have, that it’s intimately connected to Judaism, and I find, as many others have found, that Judaism did not start out as a monotheistic religion, but rather as a polytheistic religion featuring a pantheon of four gods that included Yahweh, then I have also shown that Yahweh doesn’t exist. Monotheism is itself a later development, so it could not have been that god commanded that his people worship him and only him; it’s that sociopolitical and cultural pressures led to fissions in the once homogeneous group identity and from this, different groups preferred different gods in the pantheon and of these groups, some would claim that their god was the superior or true god. We see this same development in Hinduism earlier than we do in Judaism.
We can discuss eschatology and other specifics in doctrine, e.g., soteriology. We can discuss the transition from adoptionist Christology to high Christology. With regards to eschatology, we can trace the modern conception of hell, demons with pitchforks and all, and some guy named Dante will undoubtedly come up. What will also come up is Zoroastrian demonology and much older concepts like the Narakas and the Diyu. Sheol and Hell will come up as well, and anyone who isn’t overly invested in biblical consistency will see that these two places aren’t the same. Hell, as we’ve come to think of it, is not mentioned in the Jewish Bible at all.
If you think that misses the mark, then I can apply this same method to religion in general. Religion is an anthropological phenomenon that can’t be understood apart from culture. Feuerbach said “theology is anthropology.” He’s absolutely correct. If you want to argue that what’s emblematic about religion is rituals, burial rites, and belief in the supernatural, you can trace that historically and find corresponding psychological behaviors resulting in group identity and loss of self. And you will also find cognitive biases that led to agency over-detection. A lot of scholars and everyday people think that gods, especially early on, were created in response to what our ancestors couldn’t understand.
Furthermore, these gods are the result of faulty reasoning, in particular the application of teleology to natural phenomenon. Lightning strikes; who is behind this? They reasoned that a god willed the lightning to strike. The waves strike the land and before we know it, there’s a flood. Who did this? There must be a god, an agent exponentially more powerful than an average person. Even the modern monotheist disregards these deities. They also disregard a responsible tracing of their own religion’s history, one that will lead to the same conclusion: their god doesn’t exist. This is partly why I know there’s no god. I can talk about science, in particularly modern cosmology and theoretical physics; I can throw doubt on theories of causation and the metaphysics underlying arguments like the KCA and Aquinas’ Cosmological arguments. I do all of this in my upcoming ebook.
An agnostic is a person without knowledge. So an agnostic can be a theist or an atheist. An agnostic theist will be a Christian who doesn’t claim to know that Yahweh exists. An agnostic atheist will be a non-believer who doesn’t claim to know that there’s no god. Regardless, this isn’t that they say they believe there’s no god. With regards to gods, they lack belief. Like knowledge, belief is something you either posses or do not possess.
A gnostic atheist does not have that particular belief, but does have knowledge; an agnostic atheist does not have that belief but does not have knowledge or, at the very least, does not claim to have it. A gnostic theist does have this particular belief and claims, through faith or some other means, to have knowledge; an agnostic theist does have this belief, but doesn’t have knowledge. I have knowledge about my past, about my family, about my friends, about different topics. I do not have knowledge about other universes, life on other planets, and about people I’ve never met (other than articles that occur to commonsense, e.g., the people I never met have a respiratory system and a brain). I do not have belief in gods, ghosts, reptilians, and angels. I do have beliefs in humanity, i.e., a faith in humanity, life on other planets, and the existence of other universes. If belief and knowledge are something you claim to have, then they’re also something you can lack. With regards to gods, I lack belief.
Notice how this isn’t even a matter of discussion when it comes to ghosts or even angels and demons. No one claims that I believe that there are no ghosts or that I believe that there are no angels and demons. They are content with the language I use with regards to these lesser spiritual entities. When god is the topic, suddenly the theist wants to challenge what the atheist says. What they’re really attempting to do is put the two on a level playing field and perhaps, reduce atheism to a matter of faith. I’ve just showed you that atheism can be and, to my mind, should be far from that. I don’t have a belief that there’s no gods; nor do I have a different faith from the believer–one that concludes that there are no gods. I lack the belief a believer claims to have. Furthermore, I have a knowledge that believers clearly lack, for if they had it, they wouldn’t believe.