Gary Gutting on atheism and agnosticism (part 2)

A few weeks ago I posted a correspondence between Dr. Gutting, from the University of Notre Dame, concerning an article he wrote for the New York Times.

The post is here.

In it we exchanged thoughts about the meaning of atheism, the superiority or redundency of agnosticism, etc.

Well, he wrote back.  Unfortunately he wrote back just before DragonCon started, and I was unable to get back to him until after it was over.  When I did write him back I tried to handle his criticisms fairly and respectfully, so that the conversation would not devolve into something unfriendly.  Despite this, he has not written back again (since my reply) for more than two weeks now.  I’m guessing he will not write back.  Iam not sure why, but my guess is that school obligations are keeping him busy.

In any case, here is the beginning of Dr. Gutting’s response to me:

Here’s the situation:  you are presented with the statements “God exists” and “God does not exist”.  With regard to each, you say: there is not sufficient evidence to say that the statement is true.  This means that you hold a view of God that is between the two extremes of  those who say “There is sufficient evidence to say that God exists” and those who say “There is sufficient evidence to say that God does not exist”.  It seems that you, like everyone else, agree that those holding  the first extreme are theists. The question is about the other two positions.  Most people would say that those holding the second extreme are atheists.  You define an atheist as someone who holds that there is not sufficient evidence to say that God exists.  On this definition, those who hold the extreme position are atheists but only because they would agree that there is not sufficient evidence to say that God exists.  But they go further, saying also that there is sufficient evidence to say that God exists.  You could call this “extreme atheism”.  So it seems that instead of the common triad: theism/agnosticism/atheism, you have the triad: theism/atheism/extreme atheism.  But the two triads refer to exactly the same set of views, so there’s no reason to prefer your terminology.

My impression is that what you’re really concerned about is putting the burden of proof on the theist rather than on yourself.  I entirely agree that the theist has the stronger burden (assuming the theist is interesting in proving his claims).  But the atheist has at least the burden of showing that there are no good arguments for theism, which is much less easy to do than many atheists think.  In any case, I think you’d do much better to frame what you want to say in terms of the burden-of-proof issue and forget about your confusing efforts to change standard terminology.  I also think it would help if you acknowledged that you’re arguing for a change in terminology rather than saying that other people don’t understand that terminology.

I’ve inserted below a few comments about specific points.


My response was as follows:

I thank you for your thoughts.  I have been away for several days and have not been able to write back until today.

Your analysis makes it clear that you understand my position, at least mostly, even though you keep shifting the question.  This is the source of our conflict.  I, however, think that the question between “God exists” and “God does not exist” is not the question that I am asking, nor do I find it a pertinent one when talking about atheism, because that question has little to do with the definition of atheism.  That’s what I’m trying to get across here.  Your dichotomy is not interesting at all because it does not address any actual sophisticated positions at all, but rather acts as a lightning rod for straw men.

As I said, this “God exists”/”God does not exist” dichotomy is not an issue that can be answered because nobody knows.  Anyone coming at the question from this point of view will come out an agnostic, if they are honest and fair, but it does not address what they believe per se.  The question is about belief.  The question is “Do you believe a god exists?” And while someone who answers that question by saying “God does not exist” is implying that they don’t believe, they are attempting to say more than they can, and doing it while not technically answering the question at all.

So, do you believe in a god? You can either answer by saying yes (theist), no (atheist), or not answer.  But whether you answer or not, one either actually holds a belief in god currently, or one does not.  There is no possible middle ground on this.  You cannot answer “I don’t know, for how would you not know what you believe.  Perhaps you are currently wavering back and forth due to complex and/or confusing thoughts, but one either holds the belief or they do not at any given time.  Agnosticism is not a middle position here because it should be admitted before the question is proposed that “of course you don’t know for sure, but what do you believe?”

This distinction I draw does not line up with the “God exists”/”God does not exist” dichotomy for what should be obvious reasons; the issue of belief does not seek to make opposed propositions so much as ask what one accepts as true.

You talk of conflicting triads, but there are no triads.  Belief is digital; one either holds a belief or they do not.  If someone believes their are no gods, that is a different belief to have or not have, not the opposite of belief in.

As Dr. Gutting said in his response above, he responded directly to some of the comments I made in my previous email (and thus my previous post).  Below are those comments, with my responses.  For the sake of simplicity, I have blockquoted his comments and left my responses normally formatted.

Here is the rest of our latest correspondence:

You said:

This means that you hold a view of God that is between the two extremes of  those who say “There is sufficient evidence to say that God exists” and those who say “There is sufficient evidence to say that God does not exist”.

No, I I would prefer not even to address this in this way.  Why? because there is NO evidence that god does not exist.  One cannot prove a negative, although the absence of evidence for a god’s existence is telling, and gives justification to withholding belief.  The proper two “extremes” (I don’t like that word in this context) are between the statement “There is sufficient evidence to say that God exists” and those whom respond with “I don’t believe you.” Again, to have them respond that “There is sufficient evidence to say that God does not exist” is absurd, and an atheist (qua atheism) does not say this.

And yes, I do have the burden of proof in mind.  The simple fact is that the atheist (qua atheism) NEVER EVER EVER has the burden of proof.  An atheist CANNOT logically have the burden of proof because an atheist is not claiming anything at all.  An atheist is simply saying that they do not accept the claim.  And it is true that to show that the claims of theists are not sufficient is hard.  Actually, the act itself is relatively easy, but getting the theist to see that is the hard part.

About changing terminology:

For centuries the use of ‘atheist’ has not been determined by atheists but by religious institutions and people for the most part, and thus many uses exist.  Thus, the term has often been used for centuries in a way that makes no sense and which describes nobody who is fair and educated on the question of belief and gods.  So when people who don’t believe in gods start talking publicly, the first thing they are going to do is raise their hand and say “Oh, by the way, this definition of atheism you guys have been using does not seem to cohere with any actual people, and we would like you to be aware that it does not address what we actually think.”

I’m saying that people don’t understand the terminology that actual atheists use, (including some atheists who refuse to use the term because they have not thought about the implications of some traditional uses of it), and that we are trying to shift use of the term towards what coheres with what atheists actually think.  The theist/agnostic/atheist “triad” you mention simply does not cohere with a logically sensible state of positions, nor does it cohere to actual people.  Being aware of that, atheists seek to point this out so that we don’t keep hearing that we are making the same level of absurd claim as the theist by making a claim when we are not.

So yes, this is an attempt to change terminology, but to change it towards a sensible system rather than one that has no actual citizens within its gates. Your triad does not address anything real, but rather some idealized system that falls apart upon closer investigation.  Your point in the original article was right in pointing out that agnosticism is the sensible position, but only when book-ended with two positions which are nonsense, and which no sophisticated thinker actually holds to.

Your comments:

To reserve judgment on God’s existence is to say neither “God exists” nor “God does not exist”.  So,if you do not reserve judgment on God’s existence, you either say “God exists” or “God does not exist”.  Since you also do not say “God does not exist”, it follows logically that you say that God does exist.  So there’s some mistake in your formulation here.

This is clearly a false dichotomy.  My judgment is that the evidence for god is lacking, thus I lack belief even though this lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.  I am rejecting your dichotomy here.  Again, the issue is not “God exists”/”God does not exist” but rather whether one actually holds a belief in any gods.  The mistake is not in my formulation, it is with your insistence that the question is about “God exists”/”God does not exist” when it is not.  You are spelling out a simplistic dichotomy that cannot be answered; both choices are absurd to hold to.  This dichotomy needs to be thrown out completely, because no fair and sophisticated person can choose either.

A sophisticated theologian does not say god exists, they say that they believe god exists and enumerates reasons why.  An atheist does not say that god does not exist, they say they don’t accept such a being and enumerates why not.  In short-hand people may say the words “god exists” but when pressed they will have to admit that this is a statement of belief, which I think you are doing.  The problem, as I tried to point out before, is that this is sloppy when being precise.  The atheist’s position is not “God does not exist” (even though many will say this) but rather “I don’t believe the theist’s claim.”

As you said in your article, both sides are extremes and one should stick with the middle position of agnosticism.  I agree that one should be agnostic, but not that it is a middle position here.  Rather, agnosticism is the position one resolves to when they realize that the dichotomy you propose has no citizens, and that everyone is in a position of not being able to choose either rationally, which makes them redundantly agnostic.  They cannot be anything except agnostic, in fact.  Everyone is an agnostic.  Nobody can say “god exists” or “god does not exist” and be justified in saying so, whether a theist or an atheist.

Here you’re saying that atheists assert two things: (1)There is not sufficient proof to conclude that God exists; (2) There is not a high level of certainty for the claim that God does not exist.  This means that you are not an atheist in, say, Dawkins’ sense of saying “There almost certainly is no God”.  Since Dawkins is the most prominent popular representative of atheism, I would think you should not call yourself an atheist when your position contradicts his.

Actually, I’m a 6 on the Dawkins scale, just like he is.  Someone who said that their was a high level of certainty that god does not exist would be a 7 (or perhaps a 6.9).  My view is in line with Dawkins.  I know this because I have talked with him about it. Also, I am assuming that you refer to the London bus ads that had that phrase.  Dawkins did not write that phrase, but he does agree with it.  Further, even if Dawkins did disagree with me, there is no doctrine of atheism to create a conflict.  Many atheists disagree about terminology, and this is an argument I’ve had with other atheists as well.  My view is that those atheists have not thought this through carefully.  But in this case you are incorrect because Dawkin’s position is the same as mine, even if we may use different words now and then.

How do you justify the move from “The evidence is insufficient to believe that God exists” to “I should act as if God does not exist”?

I don’t.  I didn’t say that I SHOULD, I say that I do.  By all means, worry about things which you don’t find sufficient evidence for, if you like.  I am simply saying that because the evidence is insufficient, I will act as if the proposed being does not exist.  Similarly, the evidence for the Loch Ness monster is lacking, so I’m assuming you go about your day as if it does not exist.  Now, if you were swimming in Loch Ness, you might think about it, but I’d bet you would not be worried about being eaten by the monster.  Similarly, I don’t go around worrying about such things as sin, Hell, etc.

Again, I thank you for your thoughts.  Finally, to address what you said early on:

It seems that you, like everyone else, agree that those holding  the first extreme are theists. The question is about the other two positions.  Most people would say that those holding the second extreme are atheists.

Sure.  Those people are incorrect and unsophisticated, because this use does not stand up to logical scrutiny.  An analogy would be to say that a Communist is not a Capitalist, but a socialist or some other economist might raise their hand and say “um, actually, I’m just saying I’m not a Capitalist, I never said I was a Communist.”  It is true that the Communist agrees with them that they are both not Capitalists, but one goes a step further and makes a claim, while the other does not.

I’m not a theist.  When someone says that there is a god, I say I don’t believe them.  I might also point out that this is their belief, and not knowledge (they often still insist that they know, but this is unsophisticated thinking).  I never said I thought that there was no god, but for some reason people keep thrusting that on me because I call myself an atheist.  This is because the term has come to be used by unsophisticated people in a way that does not describe actual unbelievers, and we are trying to use it in a way that makes actual sense.

A-gnostic; without knowledge.  A-moral; without morality.  A-theist.  A-, without.  Theist, one who believes in a god.  Atheism; without theism or without belief in god.  atheist, not a theist.  Get it?  If I ever argue that a god does not exist, this does imply that I also don’t believe in a god, but it is something else.

And so I do sometimes argue thusly in order to flex my intellectual muscles.  Vic Stenger does too, in God, The Failed Hypothesis.  And while people who make such arguments have a lot of good points, many of which I agree with, I ultimately recognize that I cannot say with a high degree of certainty that no gods exist, despite the fact that the vast majority of the evidence leans towards gods being unparsimonious.

But as far as I am an atheist, I simply do not believe.  I’m open to be convinced, but so far have not been.

I’m an agnostic atheist.

Such was our correspondence, now left for public scrutiny.

2 thoughts on “Gary Gutting on atheism and agnosticism (part 2)

  1. While Dr. Gutting’s statements make sense to me, your statements do as well. It’s possible to be able to fit into two categories yet still fall under the same wording. As you said, a-theist means ‘without theism or belief in God.’ Just as you’d call something ab-normal, meaning not normal. Just because something might be abnormal, it doesn’t mean that the subject in question couldn’t fit into a new category.

    It’s stuff like this that reminds me why I love(d) being an English major. Ah, words!

Comments are closed.