August 7, 2009

Atheism Does Not Require Certainty

CertaintyImage via Wikipedia

For a variety of reasons, some Christians erroneously insist that atheism entails absolute certainty that no gods exist. This reflects either a misconception about the meaning of atheism or another less innocent motive. In fact, atheism does not require any particular level of certainty. All it requires is the failure to affirm belief in some sort of god(s).

Consider each of the following two questions for a moment, and notice the important difference between them?
  1. Do you believe in some sort of god or gods?
  2. Are you absolutely certain of your answer to question #1 to the degree that you have no doubt whatsoever that your answer is correct?
Only one of these questions is relevant to atheism. I'll give you a hint: it isn't the second one. Okay, that is not really fair. Both are relevant, but only the first is necessary to classify someone into the mutually exclusive categories of theist and atheist.

By definition, a theist is someone who believes in some sort of god or gods. That is, one must answer question #1 in the affirmative in order to be a theist. And yes, anyone who affirms question #1 is a theist.

Similarly, an atheist is someone who does not believe in some sort of god or gods. One who fails to affirm question #1 is, by definition, an atheist. Question #2 is relevant in that it contributes information about one's level of confidence, but this is not necessary in order to classify someone as theist or atheist.

One is a theist if one answers "yes" to question #1, regardless of how one answers question #2. Some theists do profess quite a bit of certainty; others report considerable uncertainty. Doing so does not make them any more or less of a theist, although we might call a theist who is very low on certainty an "agnostic theist."

Likewise, those who do not answer "yes" to question #1 are atheists, regardless of how they answer question #2. That is, atheism does not require any particular level of certainty. An atheist reporting low certainty might be called an "agnostic atheist," but that does not make him or her any less of an atheist.

We would not say that a Christian who experiences some doubts about her faith is suddenly no longer a Christian because she does not claim to be 100% certain. In the same way, an atheist who is not 100% certain (or uncertain, if you prefer) does not magically stop being an atheist.

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