January 8, 2019

The Gnostic Atheist

Abstract art on wall

What is agnostic atheism, and what does an agnostic atheist believe? Atheism refers to the lack of theistic belief, and an atheist is someone who does not believe in gods. Atheism does not require certainty, meaning that one can be an atheist without claiming to be 100% certain that no gods exist. In fact, many atheists do not claim to know that no gods exist; they simply point out that religious believers have yet to meet their burden of proof with regard to the existence of gods.

The gnostic atheist is a bit different, though. This is an atheist (i.e., someone who does not believe in gods) who does claim to know that no gods exist (i.e., gnosticism). How can an atheist be certain that no gods exist? Why might an atheist make such a knowledge claim?

I have not written much about gnostic atheism here at Atheist Revolution, and I think it is time for that to change. In this post, I'd like to consider the question of whether there is any basis for gnostic atheism. That is, I'd like to address the question of how gnostic atheists can claim to be certain that no gods exist.

Gods Are Logically Incoherent

Most gnostic atheists take aim at the god-concept itself. For example, some claim that the Christian god is logically incoherent. There are many variations to this type of argument, but the essence is that the characteristics Christians attribute to their god cannot co-exist in one being. The most familiar version would probably be captured in the question of whether this god could make a rock so heavy it could not lift it. The gnostic atheist concludes that the Christian god does not exist because no being with the attributes it is supposed to have can exist. If it cannot exist, then it does not exist.

But isn't there a fairly obvious problem with the logical incoherence argument as framed above? It is too narrow, applying only to one specific god. Even if the Christian god is logically incoherent, this does not necessarily mean that no other gods exist. Perhaps a god with a very different set of attributes could escape the argument above. For this reason, many gnostic atheists have broadened their approach to apply to many other possible gods. One might argue, for example, that the notion of anything existing outside of nature (or time or space) is itself incoherent. This would seem have the advantage of applying to all gods. The idea here is that defining something as "supernatural" amounts to defining it out of existence. This should remind you of the popular meme about how the invisible and the nonexistent look a lot alike.

It seems to me that logical incoherence provides a fairly effective justification for gnostic atheism. Although I consider myself to be more of an agnostic atheist these days, this was not always the case. And when I argued for gnostic atheism, I leaned heavily on the idea that the concept of gods was seriously flawed. I still find those arguments appealing. To be honest, I think I probably align more with agnostic atheism today because I see it as being somewhat more consistent with skepticism and not because I think there is anything wrong with gnostic atheism.

The Absence of Evidence

Although we may hear more about evidence and the lack thereof from agnostic atheists, I have encountered an interesting take on the lack of evidence from gnostic atheists. For some gnostic atheists, the fact that theists have had a couple thousand years to provide evidence of gods and have failed to do so means that it is time to move on and consider the matter settled. If they had evidence, we'd have seen it by now. They have provided us with little more than tired apologetics. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that there isn't any evidence to support the existence of gods.

Other gnostic atheists frame this a bit differently and emphasize more pragmatic concerns. Without evidence, they say, we are justified in living our lives as if there were no gods. And if we are going to do that, why not conclude that there are no gods? Practically speaking, we have decisions to make. We have day-to-day tasks to accomplish. If we are going to do all of this without gods, there seems to be little point in postponing our response to the question of certainty. We can go ahead and conclude that there aren't any gods and get on with our lives.

While I may prefer the logical incoherence approach, I think that this one has merit too. Sure, we could go the agnostic atheist route and continue to consider the matter unsettled while we await sufficient evidence from the theist. But I suspect the gnostic atheist has a good point in that we're probably correct to predict that it is not coming. If we are going to live our lives as if there were no gods, perhaps we should get off the fence and conclude that there are no gods.

Gnostic Atheism vs. Agnostic Atheism

Of all the reasons for infighting among atheists, the agnostic atheist vs. gnostic atheist feuds strike me as some of the silliest. And yes, I know that really is saying something because there are several thoroughly silly feuds! When someone tells me that they are a gnostic atheist because they find the concept of gods to be incoherent or recognize that religious believers do not have any evidence to offer, I think they are probably on the right track. I have little difficulty respecting their point of view. And when someone tells me that they are an agnostic atheist because they are waiting to see whether religious believers will ever meet their burden of proof, I think they are probably on the right track too. Again, this strikes me as a perfectly respectable point of view.

As long as atheists in certain parts of the world are being murdered for being atheists or speaking out against religion, we have far more pressing concerns than which brand of atheism we prefer. As long as atheists in certain parts of the world face discrimination and bigotry merely because they are atheists, we will find strength in numbers and should be reluctant to fall to petty divisions. There is more than enough room under our big tent for both gnostic atheism and agnostic atheism.