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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Skepticism

While it might seem odd at first to include atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism in a series on religion, these three systems of thought should be addressed here. Religion is sometimes defined as whatever about which a man is deeply concerned,1 and it is to such concerns that we now turn. Everyone, even the nontheist, attempts to make sense of and explain the reality around him While those who believe in some form of God attribute this world's existence in some way to that God (or gods); the atheist, agnostic, and skeptic form an alternative naturalistic explanation for this world.
Since our space is limited, we usually will refer to the three views as one, recognizing the great overlap among them. Where their distinctions are important we will point them out. After defining the three terms we will review briefly the history of the nontheistic (apart from God) movement. Then we will discuss five kinds of objections which represent most of the arguments brought by nonbelievers against a belief in God. These five objections include problems in the areas of language, knowledge, moral concepts, scientific method, and logic. Since this is to be a survey of nontheistic religions, and not a presentation of Christianity, we will not present systematic proofs for the existence of God, but we will present short theistic resolutions to the five problems mentioned. We have included the names of the major philosophers whose writings would be helpful in understanding these areas of belief.

The word atheism comes from the Greek prefix a (no or non-) and the noun theos (god or God). An atheist is one who believes that there exists positive evidence that there is no God. To the atheist, all of existence can be explained naturally rather than supernaturally. An atheist is convinced that all religious belief, evidence, and faith are false.
Popular authors and philosophy professors William and Mabel Sahakian explain it as follows:
Unlike Agnostics, the Atheist takes a definite stand, arguing that proof regarding God's existence or nonexistence is available, but that the evidence favors the assumption of nonexistence (William and Mabel Sahakian, Ideas of the Great Philosophers, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1966, p. 100).

Bishop Charles Gore summarizes atheistic belief as presupposing
that we see in the world of which we form a part no signs of anything corresponding to the mind or spirit or purposes which indisputably exist in man – no signs of a universal spirit or reason with which we can hold communion, nothing but blind and unconscious force (Charles Gore, The Reconstruction of Belief, London: John Murray, 1926, pp. 45,46).

Historically, atheism sometimes refers to a rejection of only particular gods or a particular God. Hans Schwarz informs us that :
When the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, for instance, declared that the sun was an incandescent stone somewhat larger than the Peloponesus, he was accused of impiety or atheism and forced to leave his hometown Athens (Hans Schwarz, The Search for God, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1975, p. 16).

Plato in his Laws X (c. 352-350 B C ) defined two basic kinds of atheists: those who are sincerely convinced God (or gods) does not exist; and those who assert that there is no place for God (or gods) in this world. The first kind of atheist is considered moral and upright while the second kind is seen as an anarchistic (without law) threat to society.2 Socrates may have been put to death for being this second kind of atheist. Again, Schwarz notes,
...when Socrates was indicted for "impiety" in 399 B.C. on grounds that he had corrupted the young and neglected the gods during worship ceremonies ordered by the city and had introduced religious novelties, he was sentenced to death and was condemned to drink the hemlock within twenty-four hours. But Socrates' position and that of other atheists was far from being atheistic in the modern sense (ibid., p. 17).

Agnosticism comes from the Greek prefix a- (no or non-) and the noun gnosis (knowledge, usually by experience). An agnostic is one who believes there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the existence or nonexistence of God or gods. Agnostics criticize the theist and the atheist for their dogmatism and their presumption of such knowledge.

William and Mabel Sahakian say that agnosticism "refers to a neutralist view on the question of the existence of God; it is the view of the person who elects to remain in a state of suspended judgment" (Sahakian and Sahakian, Ideas, p. 100}.

The Runes Dictionary of Phi1osophy defines agnosticism as:
l. (epist.} that theory of knowledge which asserts that it is impossible for man to attain knowledge of a certain subject-matter. 2. (theol.) that theory of religious knowledge which asserts that it is impossible for man to attain knowledge of God (Dagobert D. Runes, ed, Dictionary of Philosophy, Totowa, NJ. Littlefield, Adams 8. Company, 1960, 1962, p.&).

This is complemented by Peter Angeles' Dictionary of Phi1osophy, which defines agnosticism as:
1. The belief (a) that we cannot have knowledge of God and (b) that it is impossible to prove that God exists or does not exist. 2. Sometimes used to refer to the suspension of judgment ..about some types of knowledge such as about the soul, immortality, spirits, heaven, hell, extraterrestrial life (Peter Angeles, Dictionary of Philosophy, New York: Harper S Row, Publishers, 1981, p. 20).

There are two types of agnostics. One type says there is insufficient evidence but leaves open the possibility of sometime obtaining enough evidence to know with certainty. The second type is convinced that it is objectively impossible for anyone to ever know with certainty the existence or non-existence of God or gods.

William and Mabel Sahakian add this distinction to their definition of agnosticism (see above):
One group of Agnostics assumes that it merely lacks the facts necessary to form a judgment and defers any conclusion pending the acquisition of such facts; another group assumes a more dogmatic position, contending that facts are not available because it is impossible now (and will continue to be impossible) to obtain these facts – a view exemplified in Immanuel Kant's attacks upon the traditional arguments for the existence of God (Sahakian and Sahakian, Ideas, p. 100)

Christian authors Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg also point out the distinction between the two kinds of agnostics:
One form of agnosticism claims that we do not know if God exists; the other insists that we cannot know. The first we'll call "soft" and the second "hard" agnosticism We are not here concerned about "soft" agnosticism, since it does not eliminate in principle the possibility of knowing whether God exists. It says in effect, "I do not know whether God exists but it is not impossible to know. I simply do not have enough evidence to make a rational decision on the question." We turn, then, to the "hard" form which claims that it is impossible to know whether God exists (Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980, p. 296)

Skepticism is derived from the Latin scepticus (inquiring, reflective, doubting). The Latin in turn comes from the Greek scepsis (inquiry, hesitation, doubt). The Greeks used the word to refer to a certain school of philosophical thought, the Skeptics3 (see History below), who taught that because real knowledge is unattainable, one should suspend judgment on matters of truth. This meaning is carried in Runes' Dictionary of Phi1osophy:
A proposition about a method of obtaining knowledge: that every hypothesis should be subjected to continual testing; that the only or the best or a reliable method of obtaining the knowledge of one or more of the above kinds is to doubt until something indubitable or as nearly indubitable as possible is found; that wherever evidence is indecisive, judgment should be suspended; that knowledge of all or certain kinds at some point rests on unproved postulates or assumptions (Runes, Philosophy, p. 278).

This is confirmed by B. A. G. Fuller's A History of Philosophy, where he reminds us that the "role of skepticism is to remind men that knowing with absolute certainty is impossible" (B. A G. Fuller, A History of Philosophy, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1955, vol. II, p. 581).

Peter Angeles shows in his definition of skepticism that there is a range of belief within the system He writes that skepticism is:
l. A state of doubting. 2. A state of suspension of judgment. 3. A state of unbelief or nonbelief. Skepticism ranges from complete, total disbelief in everything, to a tentative doubt in a process of reaching certainty [Angeles, Philosophy, p. 258).

While skepticism is sometimes synonymous with certain definitions of agnosticism, other writers distinguish between skepticism and agnosticism as does Warren Young, who writes:

Skepticism carries the negative attitude a step farther than agnosticism, denying the possibility of human knowledge. Truth in an objective sense is unattainable by any means within man's reach (Warren Young, A Christian Approach to Philosophy, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954, p.61)

Keeping in mind Geisler and Feinberg's two kinds of agnosticism (see above under the definition of agnosticism), their comments on the differences between agnosticism and skepticism are important. They write,

The skeptic neither affirms nor denies God's existence. And in contrast to the (hard) agnostic, the skeptic does not say it is impossible to know. For (hard} agnosticism too is a form of dogmatism – negative dogmatism The skeptic claims to take a much more tentative attitude toward knowledge. He is not sure whether a man can or cannot know God. In fact, the complete skeptic is not sure of anything (Geisler and Fein-berg, Philosophy, p. 299).

Because of the overlap of definitions for atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism, it is at times difficult and even unnecessary to distinguish one's usage of the terms. What is most important to remember is that most nonreligious people, while they may label themselves with one of the three terms, usually have no clear understanding of how their own views fit one category but not the others. A person may be regarded as an atheist but, in actual practice, fall under the common definition of an agnostic. Another person may be regarded as a skeptic but admit to the possibility of change to accept some universal truths. If someone questions everything, the title "skeptic" can be applied. But since certainty might be found someday it would be appropriate to be seen as an agnostic. However, if at this time that person does not believe in God, is "atheist" the proper term'. While the three terms are useful to us (as in reading other philosophy works), the terms are relatively unimportant in most personal encounters. If we can establish what someone believes about knowledge, about obtaining knowledge, and about the ultimate meaning of existence, then we can deal with that person on the level at which he is comfortable. In such a situation, the label of atheist, agnostic, or skeptic is unimportant.

As we look at brief histories of atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism, we will reverse our order of discussion to reflect the chronological development of these three areas of philosophical thought. There have been skeptics, atheists, and agnostics throughout the history of mankind, and we will treat skepticism first, then atheism, and finally agnosticism

The Greek schools of Skepticism began around 365 B.C. The first skeptic philosopher of note was Pyrrho of Elis (365-275 B.C.). The Pyrrhonic School held that skepticism was so pervasive that even their theory of skepticism was not certain. Skepticism was adopted as a way to avoid mental and emotional distress caused by conflicting data.

... the central idea of the early Skeptics was to avoid mental insecurity or doubt by abstaining from judgment on issues; suspension of judgment (epoche) became the fundamental theory of Skepticism. The policy of withholding judgment applied not only to metaphysical and logical questions, but also to value judgments pertaining to right conduct, the good, and the desirable....

The Skeptics, who were called the doubters, suspenders of judgment, and inquirers, based their philosophy on the premise that since we can know nothing of ultimate reality, then such basic things are matters of indifference to us, and they must be treated as inconsequential (William Sahakian, History of Philosophy, New York: Harper 8. Row, Publishers, 1968, pp. 48,49).

A second school of Skepticism is called Academic Skepticism, or the Middle Academy. Its leaders were Arcesilaus of Pitane in Aeolia (315-241 B.C ), Carneades of Cyrene (214-129 B.C.), and Clitomachus (187-109 B.C.). The basic premise of Academic Skepticism is summarized well by Sahakian:

The Academic Skeptics set forth the fundamental premise that they could know only one thing, namely, that nothing is knowable (ibid., pp. 49,50).

The Academics spent most of their efforts attacking the teachings of the Stoics,4 and their presentation of Skepticism was often done in direct contrast to Stoicism. Arcesilaus stated that, while one could not know, even about ethics, one could judge probability and that, in fact, one should order his life by probability. He was followed by Carneades, who postulated three degrees of probability.

l. In the first place, we have mere probability, where we act with little or no observation of similar situations to help us, and where the chances therefore are about fifty-fifty, but seem worth taking in view of what we shall gain if we win.

2. Secondly, we have undisputed probability, where empirical observation shows us that other people have repeatedly taken the same chances successfully and to their advantage, and have never lost. Here the face-value of the probable truth and reliability of an impression is backed up by all the other impressions and notions related to it.

3. Finally, we may be able to act upon chances that not only look worth taking on a fifty-fifty basis and are uncontradicted and backed up by the experiences of other people, but have been thoroughly investigated and found to have solid reasons for taking them. In other words, we may be able to discover a "system" for life's gamble that mathematically, so to speak, ought to work. Then, says Carneades, we have a basis for action that is probable, undisputed, and tested (Fuller, Philosophy, pp. 277,278}.

Clitomachus (sometimes spelled Cleitomachus) was the third leader. He attacked the three degrees of probability, opting for a more uniform system of Skepticism

Sensationalistic Skepticism was the last of the classical schools of Skepticism. Its two most prominent leaders were Aenesidemus of Gnossus (first century B.C.) and Sextus Empiricus (200 A.D.). Aenesidemus exposed what he felt were fallacious tests for truth: sensation and confirmed opinion. He felt that these were subjective tests and could not be trusted. However, he had no objective tests for truth and instead was a confirmed skeptic, viewing life and existence as uncertain but livable on the basis of custom and probability. Sextus Empiricus was a doctor, from the empiricist school of doctors, and he put forth the maxim that life should be ordered by observation, or empiricism. Loyal to skepticism, Sextus promoted the study of Socrates' remark, "All that I know is that I know nothing." Sextus set forth his skepticism as follows:

The arche, or motive, for skepticism was the hope of reaching ataraxia, the state of "unperturbedness." .. Sextus Empiricus' skepticism had three stages: antithesis, epode (suspension of judgment), and ataraxia. The first stage involved a presentation of contradictory claims about the same subject. These claims were so constructed that they were in opposition to one another, and appeared equally probable or improbable.... The second state is epode, or the suspension of judgment. Instead of either asserting or denying any one claim about the subject at hand, one must embrace all mutually inconsistent claims and withhold judgment on each of them The final stage is ataraxia, a state of unperturbedness, happiness, and peace of mind. When that occurs one is freed from dogmatism. He can live peacefully and un-dogmatically in the world, following his natural inclinations and the laws or customs of society (Geisler and Feinberg, Philosophy, pp. 85, 86).

Skepticism died out for the most part during the ascendancy of Christianity. It did not become a noticeable philosophical movement again until the post-Reformation period of western European thought with Bishop John Wilkins (1614-1672) and Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680). They are sometimes called "mitigated skeptics." While clinging tenaciously to one area of skepticism, they compromised by not embracing skepticism as the answer to all knowledge problems in all fields. They distinguished between two types of knowledge. The first type, which they agreed was unreliable, was called "in-fallibly certain knowledge." Nothing, in other words, could be known infallibly and certainly. However, the second type of knowledge, by which one could order life, was called "indubitably certain knowledge." This was knowledge that one had no reason, experience, evidence, or report by which to doubt its veracity. Using this knowledge, Wilkins and Glanvill developed their own system of determining truth within the limits of "reasonable doubt."

Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
wrote at the same time as Wilkins and Glanvill, although he is not considered to be a "mitigated skeptic." As a Christian theist, he used skepticism as a tool to prove the existence of God. Rather than seeing skepticism as an end in itself, he saw it as the way to begin to show the undeniability of the existence of God.

For Descartes, skepticism was not the conclusion of some argument, but the method whereby all doubt could be overcome. Descartes claimed that it is possible to arrive at indubitable knowledge through the rigorous and systematic application of doubt to one's beliefs (ibid., p. 91) .

From the time of Descartes, the majority of such thinkers have been atheists or agnostics. We will treat some of these skeptical thinkers more thoroughly in the historical sections on atheism and agnosticism. However, we will mention them briefly here.

David Hume (1711-1776) is known as a metaphysical5 skeptic. He believed that it was impossible to have any accurate knowledge about anything metaphysical. He pointed out that standards of probability for beliefs go beyond our immediate experience and must be accepted with some measure of faith.

Nicholas Horvath in his book, Philosophy, explains that: Hume claimed that only sense-knowledge based on experience is possible. Ideas are mere copies of sense impressions. Impressions and ideas constitute the human intellect. Ideas are not entirely unconnected; there is a bond of union between them and one calls up another. This phenomenon is called association of ideas.

Neither material nor spiritual substances exist in reality; their ideas are purely imaginative concepts, being nothing other than a constant association of impressions. Likewise there is nothing in man's experience that justifies a notion of necessary connection or causation; cause and effect designate merely a regular succession of ideas. Since the principle of causality is mere expectation due to custom, no facts outside consciousness are known to man.

Granted the negation of substance, the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul are only hypothetical. Freedom of will is an illusion; virtue is that which pleases, and vice is that which displeases (Nicholas A. Horvath, Phi1osophy, Woodbury, NY: Barron's Educational Series, Inc., 1974, pp. 88,89).

More recently, A. J. Ayer (1910-1970), a limited skeptic, taught that any talk about metaphysics is meaningless. In addition, Albert Camus (1913-1960), one of the most important of all the so-called "irrational" skeptics, asserted that there is no meaning, no knowledge that is objectively true, and no objective value. The entire history of skepticism has the same basic theme. It suspends judgment about truth. At various times skeptics have said that even their statement of skepticism is doubtful. At other times they have said that the one non-skeptical statement is the same statement, that skepticism is doubtful.

Although the term atheism as a reference to the belief that God (or gods) does (do) not exist dates from the late sixteenth century, Niccolo Machiavelli (d 1527) had already promoted a social ethic which did not depend on belief in, or the existence of, a supreme God. In his satirical essay, The Prince, he taught that the ruler ought to rule wisely and justly in order to secure his position and to satisfy his ego, rather than to satisfy some divine mandate. Machiavelli was one of the first to champion the then novel idea that "the end justifies the means." He argued that a ruler should not burden his subjects too much, not because it would be morally wrong to do so, but because it would not be expedient, for his oppressed subjects would then be more likely to revolt, depose him, and perhaps even kill him for his cruelty. Although Machiavelli cannot be termed an actual atheist, his system for successful governorship does not depend on, or presuppose, any divine order to this world.

Ideas from many philosophers, not all of whom were actually atheists, helped shape the atheistic philosophy of today.

During the enlightenment of the eighteenth century, Baron P H. T. d'Holbach referred to an atheist as
a man who destroys the dreams and chimerical beings that are dangerous to the human race so that men can be brought back to nature, to experience, and to reason (Enclyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago, et. al. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1978, Macropaedia, II, p. 2,59).

As a brief and circumscribed overview of the history of atheism, we will review some of the contributions to modern atheism made by Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Comte, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and Sartre. Ideas from philosophers such as Bayle, Spinoza, Fichte, and Hume, although not mentioned here, also contributed to the development of modern atheistic thought.

Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) was the man whose writings became an inspiration for the modern atheistic movement. He was one of the first prominent philosophers to advance the idea that God6 was dependent upon the world at least as much as the world was dependent upon God. He said that without the world God is not God. In some way, God needed His creation. This was the first step in saying that, since God was not sufficient in Himself, He was then unnecessary and ultimately imaginary.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) was an early prominent atheistic philosopher. He denied all supernaturalism and attributed all talk about God to talk about nature. Man, he said, is dependent not on God, but on nature. Feuerbach promoted what is sometimes referred to as the wish-fulfillment idea of God He postulated that the idea of God arose as a result of men desiring to have some sort of supernatural Being as an explanation for their own existence and the events they observed around them This wish, or desire, was the seed from which the God-myth grew. Feuerbach thought this hypothesis proved that God actually did not exist.

Hegel and Feuerbach strongly influenced Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his collaborator, Frederich Engels (1820-1895). Marx, an avowed atheist, preached that religion is the opiate of the people and the enemy of all progress. Part of the task of the great proletariat revolution is the destruction of all religion.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was an early contemporary of Marx and Engels. He believed that God was an irrelevant superstition. As a result, Comte divided human development into three main stages:

"the Theological, or fictitious," "the Metaphysical, or ab-stract" and the Scientific, or positive." In the first the human mind looks for first causes and "supposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of supernatural beings." The second is a transitional stage where the mind searches for "abstract forces" behind phenomena. But in the third and ultimate stage man's mind applies itself to the scientific study of the laws according to which things work. God and the supernatural are left behind as irrelevant superstition (Colin Brown, Phi1osophy and the Christian Faith, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968, pp. 241, 142).

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is often called the Father of the Death of God School. He laid the cornerstone for later nihilists by teaching that since God does not exist, man must devise his own way of life.

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1971} were two prominent existentialist thinkers who discussed the ambiguous (and therefore meaningless) nature of religious transcendence. In addition, Heidegger stressed that one's salvation lay in his own independence as an individual separated from every other individual, including, of course, any sort of God.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1981} was the most popular proponent of existentialism. He argued that man not only creates his own destiny, but that each man has only himself as the sole justification for his existence. There is no ultimate, objective, eternal meaning to life. An individual simply exists without reference to others.

A good example of atheistic perspective is contained in the Humanist Manifesto (1933). It was composed and signed by leading secular humanists who declared, in part, that "Humanism is faith in the supreme value and selfperfectability of human personality " Although there have been many other important thinkers in the history of atheism, these are representative of the most influential contributors shaping modern atheistic thought. Other modern atheistic thinkers are discussed in some of the references mentioned in the bibliography.

Although agnosticism is a very broad field, we have chosen to limit our historical discussion of it to three of the most influential philosophers in its recent expressions. As we stated before, there is some overlap among atheism, agnosticism and skepticism, and many of the philosophers important in the development of one are also important to the others.

David Hume (1711-1776}, known for promoting metaphysical skepticism, showed the close marriage between skepticism and agnosticism. As a British Empiricist, he declared that the probabilistic standards for beliefs go beyond our immediate experience. We act on faith, then, not on knowledge. We do not know for sure: we are agnostic. However, we still act, having chosen to trust faith while at the same time being prepared for faith to let us down. Belief is not to be confused with ultimate truth, which is unknowable.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), although a theist, developed Hume's skepticism into metaphysical agnosticism. He believed it was impossible to know reality and consequently impossible to know metaphysical reality.

Colin Brown credits T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) with the term agnostic.

The word agnosticism is of much more recent coinage. It is generally ascribed to T. H. Huxley, the Victorian scientist and friend of Charles Darwin, who devised it to describe his own state of mind. He used it, not to deny God altogether, but to express doubt as to whether knowledge could be attained, and to protest ignorance on 'a great many things that the-ists and the-ites about me professed to be familiar with' (ibid., p. 132) .

Hume, Kant and Huxley represent a short history of contemporary agnosticism, which is distinguished by its assertion that one cannot know. Other prominent agnostics include Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell.

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