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2009-12-13
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
In light of the survey's many items with 3 options (besides "other"), I was rather surprised that the "God" question left out "agnosticism". If pressed to declare whether I "lean toward" one of the options provided, I might choose one or the other, yet believe that philosophically the most responsible position is agnosticism. Moreover, considering that there are many rival versions of theism, most people who believe in a particular (theistic) deity disbelieve many or even all rival versions, so overall they too ought to be agnostic. I wonder why this question was dichotomous. 

2009-12-13
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Noam Zohar
Look more closely at the "other" options (under fine-grained view of results).

2009-12-13
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Noam Zohar
I agree. The dichotomous atheism/theism choice implied that these are the two "major" positions - the rest going in "other". Despite Dawkins et al, I would have thought agnosticism is a much more common position today than atheism - certainly in the world at large (which presumably philosophers should not ignore altogether...)

And is "theism" really widespread today? I know it was in the eighteenth century ... 

DA


2009-12-13
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Noam Zohar
Theism can safely be taken to be the belief that God, as traditionally conceived by Jews, Christians and Muslims, exists. Atheism is the belief that theism is false. Indeed, some dictionaries go this way and in contexts like the survey the terms are unlikely to mislead.

But it is much harder to know what position ‘agnosticism’ denotes. It is often defined as the view that we cannot know whether theism or atheism is correct. Suppose I believe that theism is false, because I think all the evil and trouble in the world make theism’s truth so unlikely that disbelief is warranted. So I’m an atheist. But suppose I also believe that I cannot positively know that theism is false–I hold that we cannot positively know such things one way or the other. (There are, surely, things I'm entitled to believe that I don't know, e.g. that I won't be run over by a bus today.)
Then I’m also an agnostic, which seems wrong. Atheism and agnosticism are supposed to exclude one another.

I believe this problem led Russell to say that he was an agnostic, while cautioning that his version of agnosticism would strike many people as atheism.

Or suppose that I have no opinion one way or another about these matters, but I don’t believe that we cannot know whether theism is true or false. Perhaps there are arguments in books somewhere that positively prove theism or perhaps prove atheism. Further, I can imagine events that, if they happened, would decide the matter. For example, suppose tomorrow morning the trumpet blows, the dead rise, and so on. That would settle things as far as I’m concerned. Then I am not an agnostic, even though I have no opinion one way or the other about theism, because I don’t believe that we cannot know that theism is true or false.

So it’s pretty unclear what agnosticism amounts to. One wants it to exclude theism and atheism, but on the standard definition, it doesn’t. Nor does it necessarily include people who have no opinion one way or another about religious matters.

2009-12-13
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Jim Stone
RE: "Theism can safely be taken to be the belief that God, as traditionally conceived by Jews, Christians and Muslims, exists."

If that were so, then theism would be a very confused belief indeed!  The claim implies - doesn't it? - that there is no significant difference between each of these "Gods" - a position that, surely, a devout follower of each of the religions concerned would contest very strongly. (And simply to lump them all together as monotheisms would be quite inadequate. Remember, a religion is a real, living faith, not a lifeless abstraction dreamed up to fit philosophers' neat categories. For most Christians, the suggestion that they could simply swap their God for the Muslim one would surely be quite repugnant (and vice versa). And what would authorize us to tell them they are wrong?)

RE: "[Agnosticism] is often defined as the view that we cannot know whether theism or atheism is correct."

Well, that would certainly be a very narrow and quite unsatisfactory definition. Why define it against theism and atheism - which are themselves open to numerous interpretations (and problems - see above)? Agnosticism can presumably take a variety of forms but, most generally, it would surely be understood simply as the position that whether or not there is a god, or many gods (or indeed any "ultimate reality") is simply accepted as an unknown - a very common view these days, I would have thought.

Taking this point a little further, I think one can quite reasonably describe modern Western culture in general as an agnostic culture - in the sense that most people, even when indicating some nominal attachment to a religion, mostly push religious questions aside as too hard, probably dispensable, and in any case best left alone (there are of course various minorities who disagree). But it would be very rash, I think, despite Dawkins et al, to describe modern Western culture as an atheistic culture; and as for theism, most people today scarcely know what the term means (not surprisingly - see above). In other words, the questionnaire omitted the one alternative that is most relevant to the culture in which we live - agnosticism. One hopes this doesn't reflect tendencies in analytic philosophy more generally...?

DA



2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Jim Stone
[partly echoing Derek Allan's response] Why not use a softer definition of agnosticism? Suppose I am asked to say whether I accept theism or rather atheism, i.e., whether I believe that a god (or, in fact gods - since theism includes both monotheism and polytheism) exists or that no such being exists And I respond: "I don't know", or "I am not sure" [or perhaps even "It depends what you mean by 'god' or by 'exist'] -- am I not an agnostic? Surely I am neither an atheist nor a theist. Why should I count as an agnostic only if I strictly deny the possiblity of knowing?

2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Noam Zohar
Question.  I’m not sure what your softer definition of agnosticism amounts to. When I say I don’t know, what is it I don’t know? I’m asked whether I believe or disbelieve theism. On the face of things, when, in this context, I say I don’t know, I’m not sure, it all depends on what you mean by ‘god,’  I’m saying I don’t know whether I believe or disbelieve theism. So, if I understand your definition, the agnostic is the person who doesn’t know whether or not she believes or disbelieves theism.  

Suppose I know that I neither believe nor disbelieve theism. I’m certain that we can have no good reasons to believe or disbelieve that a God or gods exist, that discussions about any such matters are a waste of time, and I know that I have no opinion one way or the other. So I don’t answer ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m not sure’ or ‘it depends what you mean by ‘god’.’  As the agnostic is the individual who doesn’t know whether or not she believes or disbelieves theism, and I know that I neither believe nor disbelieve theism, I’m not an agnostic, which is counterintuitive.

Alternatively perhaps you mean this: when I say I don’t know, what I don’t know is whether or not theism is true. In this case I may very well know my own mind, that I strongly believe theism is  true. Still I may judge that I don’t know that theism is true. This is the position of many believers, in fact. So C.S. Lewis wrote that ‘Christians are taking a chance.’ He meant an epistemic chance– maybe God doesn’t exist, maybe there are no supernatural things; we can’t be sure, though belief is warranted and sensible. If the agnostic is the individual who doesn’t know whether or not theism is true, who isn’t sure about that, then many theists are agnostics.

It seems to me that we want a term that denotes people who have no opinion one way or the other, or perhaps have no firm opinion one way or the other. The problem with 'agnosticism' is that it is generally defined in terms of knowledge or the possibility of knowledge, while theism and atheism are defined in terms of belief, so that 'agnosticism' draws lines in unhelpful places.

2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Noam Zohar
Not an expert here by any means but the way of using atheism and agnosticism that I've been finding most useful is as follows:
Theism is asserting that one has belief in a deity. Atheism is not asserting this belief. Gnosticism is asserting knowledge and agnosticism is not asserting knowledge. With these definitions agnosticism and atheism are not exclusive, in fact most atheists are agnostic atheists as they will tell you that they don't believe but not that they know there isn't a deity. Most self described agnostics agree that they are agnostic atheists according to these definitions. I've tended to find, among non-philosophers anyway, that the ratio of gnostic theists to agnostic theists is much greater than the ratio of gnostic atheists to agnostic atheists.

2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek,
To be fair - nearly every question on this survey is generalized, and the atheism/theism/other question is no different. Lumping together monotheistic conceptions of God under the title "theist" makes sense to me - each believes in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent single being - whether or not the remainder of the respective religious window dressing is the same is beside the point. This is a survey that asks very general questions - the more specified the questions, the less significant the data will be. Suppose the question supplied an option for each of the world's 22 "major" religions - Would any of the options exceed 5%? What kind of inferences could be drawn from a question formed such that it would satisfy your above complaints?

This debate could be had about any of the questions on this survey.

My guess is that specialists in the Philosophy of Religion had major difficulties with this question - While "theism" seems to be relatively well-defined, what about the agnostic-atheist distinction? I really have no idea where to classify, say, Hinduism on this scale.

That said, I think nit-picking the question misses some very interesting results, particularly with respect to the specialist differences. My guess is that a larger number of the general public would identify themselves as theists than the %14-18 of all philosophers who identify themselves as theists. What is interesting, is that %60-70 of specialists in PR consider themselves theist - I suspect that is a much larger number than the general public would report. Would any of the other questions show such a strange trend between the general public, philosophers, and specialists?



2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Derek Allan

RE:  "If that were so, then theism would be a very confused belief indeed!  The claim implies - doesn't it? - that there is no significant difference between each of these "Gods" ... (expand) - a position that, surely, a devout follower of each of the religions concerned would contest very strongly."

I fail to see how the proposed definition implies that Gods of various traditions can be exchanged salva veritate.  That seems to be something you have read into it.  It only points out that there is a similarity between the beliefs employed in these religions (i.e. there is a single, supernatural, all powerful creator of the universe); a claim which can hardly be denied.  Nonetheless, as a definition for theism it is lacking, as Theism here has been equated with monotheism, which is actually only one kind of theistic belief.  Theism needs to be able to include polytheism as well.  There are also some who would argue that non-traditional accounts of God(s) should be included.  Something like "God is only the word for the power within ourselves" or "God is the laws of nature." However, I agree with Alvin Plantinga that these accounts are not really theistic.  It is best to define it, I believe, as the belief in a supernatural power(s) which willfully act (or at one time acted, so we can include deism) in the world.  Atheism would be the denial of such supernatural powers.  Atheism of course, just like theism, could then manifest itself in several ways; the definition only points to similarity between such manifestations.

One should also consider the now popular term in religious studies: non-theistic.  This demarcates beliefs similar to theism, in that there are supernatural powers, but those powers are not capable of volition.  Buddhism has been the prime example of such beliefs (though one may argue that some forms of lay-Buddhism walk the line between theism and non-theistic beliefs pretty recklessly, metaphorically speaking).

As for Agnosticism, I'm not really sure a particular definition could really be given.  If there is one, it is probably just something along the lines of abstaining from the belief in supernatural powers for any number of reasons (insufficient evidence, epistemic poverty regarding supernatural issues, valid arguments on both sides, etc.)<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />


2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Jim Stone
It seems to me that if one wanted to define the three as mutually exclusive, one could give the following three options on a survey:1) Accept: God/gods exist/s
2) Accept: God/gods do/es not exist
3) Withhold belief: God/gods exist/s

Most people think of agnosticism as withholding belief concerning the existence of a deity/deities. I assume that's why (regrettably) I hear it referred to as "a weak man's atheism" or "a spineless atheism". So it seems to me that most people think of agnosticism as an inability to make up one's mind or come down on the issue. This is a good way to characterize agnosticism. It's more general and makes room for at least two different reasons that I might withhold belief in something: 1) I might think that the evidence is objectively inconclusive or (2) I might think that the evidence is inconclusive from my perspective. The first option corresponds to Jim's notion of agnosticism. Someone who believes that we cannot know (for certain) whether a deity exists probably believes that the evidence is objectively inconclusive. On the other hand, someone might think that the evidence is inconclusive from their own perspective, and yet believe that it could seem (reasonably) to be conclusive from someone else's perspective.

2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Isaac Wiegman
Good definitions! But with regard to evidence, there's another possibility: One who thinks there is both very good evidence that a deity exists, and very good evidence against this. Of course on the bottom line this converges with "One who finds no conclusive evidence", but it is perhaps worth distinguishing a dearth of evidence from, so to speak, a surplus of (contradictoty) evidence. It is especially the latter that is poignantly distinct from Jim's agnostic, who holds that there can be no good evidence one way or the other (bringing us perilously close to non- verifiability) or (folowing St. Paul and many Christian theologians) that religious belief is a matter of faith, contrasted in principle with (rational/ evidence based) knowledge.

2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to David Cheely
David

RE: "To be fair - nearly every question on this survey is generalized, and the atheism/theism/other question is no different. Lumping together monotheistic conceptions of God under the title "theist" makes sense to me - each believes in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent single being - whether or not the remainder of the respective religious window dressing is the same is beside the point."

What does "generalized" mean here?  Does it mean: so vague as to be virtually useless from a philosophical point of view? If not that, then what?

As for the second part of your comment, I wonder how many Christians, Muslims, or Jews would agree that their doctrines - eg the resurrection of Christ, that Mohammad was God's prophet, or that Israel is the promised land - are simply "window dressing"?  As I said in my earlier comment, religions are real, living faiths, not vague philosophical abstractions. I have no idea what "theism" was intended to signify in the questionnaire (vagueness reigned supreme here as in so many other questions) but hopefully it was not intended to signify a kind of bizarre pot pourri of Christianity, Islam and Judaism... 

DA





2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Jim Stone
Jim

RE: "As the agnostic is the individual who doesn’t know whether or not she believes or disbelieves theism"

This is very similar to the claim you made in your earlier post, but it is unjustified for two reasons. (1) You are not making clear what you mean by theism. So the "individual" in question is in a very invidious position: he/she is expected to pronounce on something that is quite unclear. And (2) even assuming one knew what you meant, to disbelieve in theism, or not to know if one disbelieves it, is simply that - to disbelieve it or not to know: by itself, it does not make one an agnostic. (One might, for example, worship the spirits of the ancestors, or believe in a rational Idea working itself out in History - or does your "theism" even encompass these?). 

An agnostic - certainly as the term is commonly used (and analytic philosophy likes that kind of standard does it not?) - is not defined in relation to theism, especially an undefined theism. An agnostic is simply someone who thinks that all the arguments in favour of god, gods, or ultimate realities of any kind are unconvincing and therefore abstains from adhering to any of them. He or she goes on living in a state of doubt about such matters.

(The view, by the way, that agnosticism is "a weak man's atheism" or "a spineless atheism", which Isaac Wiegman mentions - happily not agreeing with that view -  is in my opinion quite silly. One might just as well say that religious belief or atheism are the refuges of the man or woman who can't manage to live with the doubt of agnosticism. There are certain people around - Dawkins et al are examples - who seem to want all non-believers to opt for atheism; agnosticism is just not enough. There is more than a hint of fanaticism about that kind of thinking in my view.)

DA



2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Derek Allan
The view about agnosticism you cite isn't mine. I criticize this defintion, in fact.

Concerning theism: Jews, Christians and Muslims traditionally share the belief that the universe was created by a personal, omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly just and good being, who has sometimes intervened in the world since then. When I said that theism is the belief that God, as traditionally conceived by Jews, Christians and Muslims, exists, I meant this shared conception. But if this way of expressing theism raises difficulties, by all means substitute the belief I characterized in the first sentence of this paragraph.

As to the word ‘theism,’ a common definition goes like this.
n.
Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world.

http://www.answers.com/topic/theism

This is meant to capture how the word is actually used. So, while ‘theism’ includes the belief in the existence of a god or gods,  it is usually meant to denote belief in a personal God as Creator and ruler of the world (which is a version of what I said above). So when people use the word ‘theism’, as in the survey, absent indications to the contrary they  probably mean what is usually meant.










2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Jim Stone
So now we have, it seems, three definitions of "theism" :

(1) "Jews, Christians and Muslims traditionally share the belief that the universe was created by a personal, omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly just and good being, who has sometimes intervened in the world since then...I meant this shared conception."
(2) "Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world", and
(3) while ‘theism’ includes the belief in the existence of a god or gods, it is usually meant to denote belief in a personal God as Creator and ruler of the world.

It seems that (1) relies in some way on Christianity, Islam and Judaism. (2) apparently doesn't rely on them, and (3) in the end seems to be a version of (2) though with maybe more emphasis on the "personal God". (Are any gods not "personal" by the way?)  But if I understand you, you think that 2/3 is the one people "probably" understood the survey to mean? So Christianity, Islam, etc are not actually relevant; and we could also be talking about one god or several gods?

Are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism also irrelevant then to your definition of agnosticism? (I'm no longer sure what you definition of agnosticism is either.)

(Of course all this leaves aside the various definitions of theism, deism etc produced by philosophers - especially in the eighteenth century. But let's not complicate things any further...)

DA

2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Derek Allan
I wrote initially: 'Theism can safely be taken to be the belief that God, as traditionally conceived by Jews, Christians and Muslims, exists.  ... Indeed, some dictionaries go this way and in contexts like the survey the terms are unlikely to mislead.' I've explained what conception that is (note that it excludes deism).
The dictionary definition I quoted, which allows that 'theism' can include belief in gods but notes that it is usually used to mean more or less what I've explicated above, is
best, IMO.

'Agnosticism' is much harder to get a grip on. All the best.

2009-12-14
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Jim Stone
RE: 'Agnosticism' is much harder to get a grip on.".

Agnosticism is simplicity itself to get a grip on, though not if one attempts to define it as non-belief in something called "theism" - a strange proposition that simply muddies the waters.

As for theism, we seem no closer to clarity. Apparently, I gather, it can mean belief in several gods - so the Aztecs presumably were good theists (despite the mass human sacrifices) as were the Egyptians - though some recent scholarship suggests that the Egyptian gods were not really what we mean by gods at all (and what do we mean by "gods" by the way?)

Alternatively, I gather, theism means, "more or less", belief in god "as traditionally conceived by Jews, Christians and Muslims."  I don't suppose there is any point in reiterating that there are major differences in the way Jews, Christians and Muslims understand god (remembering, too, that all three religions are themselves broken into various, different "traditions")?  

What all this underlines, in my view, is the pointlessness of the question in the questionnaire.  It was far too blunt an instrument to be of any value - except, I imagine, in an extremely restricted "in-house" kind of way. When one thinks of the vast differences between religions throughout history and across so many different cultures, and then thinks of the question in the questionnaire, the mind fairly boggles. I assume this does not reflect the quality of thinking in contemporary philosophy of religion generally. That would be a depressing thought.

DA









2009-12-15
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Derek Allan
‘An agnostic is simply someone who thinks that all the arguments in favour of god, gods, or ultimate realities of any kind are unconvincing and therefore abstains from adhering to any of them. He or she goes on living in a state of doubt about such matters.’

I think this is interesting and a step in the right direction. Still there are difficulties, it seems to me.

Suppose I think the arguments against the existence of Ganesh, say, are quite convincing. I haven’t the slightest doubt that Ganesh doesn’t exist. The same goes for Hanuman the monkey god. And I also think there’s no chance that the Aztec’s gods exist. Then I am not an agnostic (on this account of the term), even though I live in a state of doubt about God’s existence. This seems excessive because it requires the agnostic to live in a state of doubt about ALL such matters.  On this account, most agnostics wouldn’t be agnostics.

2009-12-15
Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism?
Reply to Jim Stone
I don't follow your line of thought. 

To be clear: If I am an agnostic my attitude would not be "I haven’t the slightest doubt that Ganesha doesn’t exist." It would simply be: "I don't know if Ganesha exists or not - i.e."I am not convinced by the relevant arguments."  Ditto for the Aztec gods. My attitude again would simply be "I don't know if they exist. I have no way of being certain. They might exist but I am not convinced."

Now, how do we suddenly jump to "even though I live in a state of doubt about God’s existence"?  Which "God" are we talking about now? Ganesha and the Aztec deities are gods. But you seem to be talking about a different god now? 

An agnostic, just to be clear, is in a state of doubt about the existence of all gods - Aztec, Hindu, Christian or otherwise. Where exactly is the problem? That seems to me a perfectly straightforward proposition.

(It is perhaps worth adding that the tendency of philosophy to talk about religious faith simply in terms of "belief in the existence of" a certain god or gods seems to me quite inadequate.  A Christian, for example, is not simply someone who believes that the Christian God exists - as he or she might believe that the next bus comes in five minutes. It is - anyway as far as I can gather - something much deeper than that. On a similar note, an agnostic is not just someone who is unsure about whether god/s exist.  He/she is someone who lives in a state of doubt. All this is somewhat beside the present point, but it does point to the tendency of philosophy to emasculate the idea of religion. Hence, possibly, the recurrent interest of philosophers in theism... )

DA  

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