Atheism and Agnosticism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Atheism and Agnosticism

1. Definitions of “Atheism”

“Atheism” is typically defined in terms of
“theism”. Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is
often defined as “the belief that God exists”, but here
“belief” means “something believed”. It refers
to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or
psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say
that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If,
however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and
theism is the proposition that God exists and not the
psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it
follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition
of believing that God exists (more on this below). The
“a-” in “atheism” must be understood as
negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of
“without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism
should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or,
more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).

This definition has the added virtue of making atheism a direct answer
to one of the most important metaphysical questions in philosophy of
religion, namely, “Is there a God?” There are only two
possible direct answers to this question: “yes”, which is
theism, and “no”, which is atheism. Answers like “I
don’t know”, “no one knows”, “I
don’t care”, “an affirmative answer has never been
established”, or “the question is meaningless” are
not direct answers to this question.

While identifying atheism with the metaphysical claim that there is no
God (or that there are no gods) is particularly useful for doing
philosophy, it is important to recognize that the term
“atheism” is polysemous—i.e., it has more than one related
meaning—even within philosophy. For example, many writers at least
implicitly identify atheism with a positive metaphysical theory like
naturalism or even materialism. Given this sense of the word, the
meaning of “atheism” is not straightforwardly derived from
the meaning of “theism”. While this might seem
etymologically bizarre, perhaps a case can be made for the claim that
something like (metaphysical) naturalism was originally labeled
“atheism” only because of the cultural dominance of
non-naturalist forms of theism, not because the view being labeled was
nothing more than the denial of theism. On this view, there would have
been atheists even if no theists ever existed—they just
wouldn’t have been called “atheists”. (Baggini
[2003] suggests this line of thought, though his
“official” definition is the standard metaphysical one.)
Although this definition of “atheism” is a legitimate one,
it is often accompanied by fallacious inferences from the (alleged)
falsity or probable falsity of atheism (= naturalism) to the truth or
probable truth of theism.

Departing even more radically from the norm in philosophy, a few
philosophers and quite a few non-philosophers claim that
“atheism” shouldn’t be defined as a proposition at
all, even if theism is a proposition. Instead, “atheism”
should be defined as a psychological state: the state of not believing
in the existence of God (or gods). This view was famously proposed by
the philosopher Antony Flew and arguably played a role in his (1972)
defense of an alleged presumption of “atheism”. The
editors of the Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Bullivant &
Ruse 2013) also favor this definition and one of them, Stephen
Bullivant (2013), defends it on grounds of scholarly utility. His
argument is that this definition can best serve as an umbrella term
for a wide variety of positions that have been identified with
atheism. Scholars can then use adjectives like “strong”
and “weak” to develop a taxonomy that differentiates
various specific atheisms. Unfortunately, this argument overlooks the
fact that, if atheism is defined as a psychological state, then no
proposition can count as a form of atheism because a proposition is
not a psychological state. This undermines his argument in defense of
Flew’s definition; for it implies that what he calls
“strong atheism”—the proposition (or belief in the
sense of “something believed”) that there is no
God—is not really a variety of atheism at all. In short, his
proposed “umbrella” term leaves strong atheism out in the

Although Flew’s definition of “atheism” fails as an
umbrella term, it is certainly a legitimate definition in the sense
that it reports how a significant number of people use the term.
Again, there is more than one “correct” definition of
“atheism”. The issue for philosophy is which definition is
the most useful for scholarly or, more narrowly, philosophical
purposes. In other contexts, of course, the issue of how to define
“atheism” or “atheist” may look very
different. For example, in some contexts the crucial issue may be
which definition of “atheist” (as opposed to
“atheism”) is the most useful politically, especially in
light of the bigotry that those who identify as atheists face. The
fact that there is strength in numbers may recommend a very inclusive
definition of “atheist” that brings anyone who is not a
theist into the fold. Having said that, one would think that it would
further no good cause, political or otherwise, to attack fellow
non-theists who do not identify as atheists simply because they choose
to use the term “atheist” in some other, equally
legitimate sense.

If atheism is usually and best understood in philosophy as the
metaphysical claim that God does not exist, then what, one might
wonder, should philosophers do with the popular term, “New
Atheism”? Philosophers write articles on and have devoted
journal issues (French & Wettstein 2013) to the New Atheism, but
there is nothing close to a consensus on how that term should be
defined. Fortunately, there is no real need for one, because the term
“New Atheism” does not pick out some distinctive
philosophical position or phenomenon. Instead, it is a popular label
for a movement prominently represented by four authors—Richard
Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher
Hitchens—whose work is uniformly critical of religion, but
beyond that appears to be unified only by timing and
popularity. Further, one might question what is new about the New
Atheism. The specific criticisms of religion and of arguments used to
defend religion are not new. For example, an arguably more
sophisticated and convincing version of Dawkins’ central atheistic
argument can be found in Hume’s Dialogues (Wielenberg
2009). Also, while Dennett (2006) makes a passionate call for the
scientific study of religion as a natural phenomenon, such study
existed long before this call. Indeed, even the cognitive science of
religion was well established by the 1990s, and the anthropology of
religion can be traced back at least to the nineteenth
century. Shifting from content to style, many are surprised by the
militancy of some New Atheists, but there were plenty of aggressive
atheists who were quite disrespectful to religion long before Harris,
Dawkins, and Hitchens. (Dennett is not especially militant.) Finally,
the stereotype that New Atheism is religious or quasi-religious or
ideological in some unprecedented way is clearly a false one and one that New
Atheists reject. (For elaboration of these points, see Zenk 2013.)

Another subcategory of atheism is “friendly atheism”,
which William Rowe (1979) defines as the position that, although God
does not exist, some (intellectually sophisticated) people are
justified in believing that God exists. Rowe, a friendly atheist
himself, contrasts friendly atheism with unfriendly atheism and
indifferent atheism. Unfriendly atheism is the view that atheism is
true and that no (sophisticated) theistic belief is justified. In
spite of its highly misleading name, this view might be held by the
friendliest, most open-minded and religiously tolerant person
imaginable. Finally, although Rowe refers to “indifferent
atheism” as a “position”, it is not a proposition
but instead a psychological state, specifically, the state of being an
atheist who is neither friendly nor unfriendly—that is, who
neither believes that friendly atheism is true nor believes that
unfriendly atheism is true.

Perhaps an even more interesting distinction is between pro-God
atheism and anti-God atheism. A pro-God atheist like John Schellenberg
(who coined the term) is someone who in some real sense loves God or
at least the idea of God, who tries very hard to imagine what sorts of
wonderful worlds such a being might create (instead of just assuming
that such a being would create a world something like the
world we observe), and who (at least partly) for that very reason
believes that God does not exist. Such an atheist might be sympathetic
to the following sentiments:

It is an insult to God to believe in God. For on the one hand it is to
suppose that he has perpetrated acts of incalculable cruelty. On the
other hand, it is to suppose that he has perversely given his human
creatures an instrument—their intellect—which must
inevitably lead them, if they are dispassionate and honest, to deny
his existence. It is tempting to conclude that if he exists, it is the
atheists and agnostics that he loves best, among those with any
pretensions to education. For they are the ones who have taken him
most seriously. (Strawson 1990)

By contrast, anti-God atheists like Thomas Nagel (1997: 130–131)
find the whole idea of a God offensive and hence not only believe but
also hope very much that no such being exists. Nagel is often
called an “antitheist” (e.g., Kahane 2011), but that term
is purposely avoided here, as it has many different senses (Kahane
2011: note 9). Also, in none of those senses is one required to be an
atheist in order to be an antitheist, so antitheism is not a variety
of atheism.

2. Definitions of “Agnosticism”

The terms “agnostic” and “agnosticism” were
famously coined in the late nineteenth century by the English
biologist, T.H. Huxley. He said that he originally

invented the word “Agnostic” to denote people who, like
[himself], confess themselves to be hopelessly ignorant concerning a
variety of matters, about which metaphysicians and theologians, both
orthodox and heterodox, dogmatise with the utmost confidence. (1884)

including of course the matter of God’s existence. He did not,
however, define “agnosticism” simply as the state of being
an agnostic. Instead, he often used that term to refer to a normative
epistemological principle, something similar to (though weaker than)
what we now call “evidentialism”. Roughly, Huxley’s
principle says that it is wrong to say that one knows or believes that
a proposition is true without logically satisfactory evidence (Huxley
1884 and 1889). But it was Huxley’s application of this
principle to theistic and atheistic belief that ultimately had the
greatest influence on the meaning of the term. He argued that, since
neither of those beliefs is adequately supported by evidence, we ought
to suspend judgment on the issue of whether or not there is a God.

Nowadays, the term “agnostic” is often used (when the
issue is God’s existence) to refer to those who follow the
recommendation expressed in the conclusion of Huxley’s argument:
an agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there
is a God but believes neither that it is true nor that it is false.
Not surprisingly, then, the term “agnosticism” is
often defined, both in and outside of philosophy, not as a principle
or any other sort of proposition but instead as the psychological
state of being an agnostic. Call this the “psychological”
sense of the term. It is certainly useful to have a term to refer to
people who are neither theists nor atheists, but philosophers might
wish that some other term besides “agnostic”
(“theological skeptic”, perhaps?) were used. The problem
is that it is also very useful for philosophical purposes to have a
name for the epistemological position that follows from the premise of
Huxley’s argument, the position that neither theism nor atheism
is known, or most ambitiously, that neither the belief that God exists
nor the belief that God does not exist has positive epistemic status
of any sort. Just as the metaphysical question of God’s
existence is central to philosophy of religion, so too is the
epistemological question of whether or not theism or atheism is known
or has some other sort of positive epistemic status. And given the
etymology of “agnostic”, what better term could there be
for a negative answer to that epistemological question than
“agnosticism”? Further, as suggested earlier, it is, for
very good reason, typical in philosophy to use the suffix
“-ism” to refer to a proposition instead of to a state or
condition, since only the former can sensibly be tested by

If, however, “agnosticism” is defined as a proposition,
then “agnostic” must be defined in terms of
“agnosticism” instead of the other way around.
Specifically, “agnostic” must be defined as a person who
believes that the proposition “agnosticism” is true
instead of “agnosticism” being defined as the state of
being an agnostic. And if the proposition in question is that neither
theism nor atheism is known to be true, then the term
“agnostic” can no longer serve as a label for those who
are neither theists nor atheists since one can consistently believe
that atheism (or theism) is true while denying that atheism (or
theism) is known to be true.

When used in this epistemological sense, the term
“agnosticism” can very naturally be extended beyond the
issue of what is or can be known to cover a large family of positions,
depending on what sort of “positive epistemic status” is
at issue. For example, it might be identified with any of the
following positions: that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief
is justified, that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief is
rationally required, that neither belief is rationally permissible,
that neither has warrant, that neither is reasonable, or that neither
is probable. Also, in order to avoid the vexed issue of the nature of
knowledge, one can simply distinguish as distinct members of the
“agnosticism family” each of the following claims about
intellectually sophisticated people: (i) neither theism nor atheism is
adequately supported by the internal states of such people, (ii)
neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief coheres with the rest of
their beliefs, (iii) neither theistic nor atheistic belief results
from reliable belief-producing processes, (iv) neither theistic belief
nor atheistic belief results from faculties aimed at truth that are
functioning properly in an appropriate environment, and so on.

Notice too that, even if agnosticism were defined as the rather
extreme position that neither theistic belief nor atheistic belief
ever has positive epistemic status of any sort, it
wouldn’t follow by definition that no agnostic is
either a theist or an atheist. Some fideists, for example, believe
that neither atheistic belief nor theistic belief is supported or
sanctioned in any way at all by reason because reason leaves the
matter of God’s existence completely unresolved. Yet they have
faith that God exists and such faith (at least in some cases) involves
belief. Thus, some fideists are extreme agnostics in the
epistemological sense even though they are not agnostics in the
psychological sense.

It is also worth mentioning that, even in Huxley’s time, some
apophatic theists embraced the term “agnostic”, claiming
that all good Christians worshipped an “unknown God”. More
recently, some atheists proudly call themselves “agnostic
atheists”, although with further reflection the symmetry between
this position and fideism might give them pause. More likely, though,
what is being claimed by these self-identified agnostic atheists is
that, while their belief that God does not exist has positive
epistemic status of some sort (minimally, it is not irrational), it
does not have the sort of positive epistemic status that can turn true
belief into knowledge.

No doubt both senses of “agnosticism”, the psychological
and the epistemological, will continue to be used both inside and
outside of philosophy. Hopefully, context will help to disambiguate.
In the remainder of this entry, however, the term
“agnosticism” will be used in its epistemological sense.
This makes a huge difference to the issue of justification. Consider,
for example, this passage written by the agnostic, Anthony Kenny
(1983: 84–85):

I do not myself know of any argument for the existence of God which I
find convincing; in all of them I think I can find flaws. Equally, I
do not know of any argument against the existence of God which is
totally convincing; in the arguments I know against the existence of
God I can equally find flaws. So that my own position on the existence
of God is agnostic.

It is one thing to ask whether Kenny’s inability to find
arguments that convince him of God’s existence or non-existence
justifies him personally in suspending judgment about the existence of
God. It is quite another to ask whether this inability (or anything
else) would justify his believing that no one (or at least no one who
is sufficiently intelligent and well-informed) has a justified belief
about God’s existence.

If agnosticism (in one sense of the word) is the position that neither
theism nor atheism is known, then it might be useful to use the term
“gnosticism” to refer to the contradictory of that
position, that is, to the position that either theism or atheism is
known. That view would, of course, come in two flavors: theistic
gnosticism—the view that theism is known (and hence atheism is
not)—and atheistic gnosticism—the view that atheism is
known (and hence theism is not).

3. Global Atheism Versus Local Atheisms

Jeanine Diller (2016) points out that, just
as most theists have a particular concept of God in mind when they
assert that God exists, most atheists have a particular concept of God
in mind when they assert that God does not exist. Indeed, many
atheists are only vaguely aware of the variety of concepts of God that
there are. For example, there are the Gods of classical and
neo-classical theism: the Anselmian God, for instance, or, more
modestly, the all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good
creator-God that receives so much attention in contemporary philosophy
of religion. There are also the Gods of specific Western theistic
religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism, which may or
may not be best understood as classical or neo-classical Gods. There
are also panentheistic and process theistic Gods, as well as a variety
of other God-concepts, both of Western and non-Western origin, that
are largely ignored by even the most well-informed atheists.
(Philosophically sophisticated theists, for their part, often act as
if refuting naturalism establishes the existence of the particular
sort of God in which they believe.) Diller distinguishes local
atheism, which denies the existence of one sort of God, from global
atheism, which is the proposition that there are no Gods of any
sort—that all legitimate concepts of God lack instances.

Global atheism is a very difficult position to justify (Diller 2016:
11–16). Indeed, very few atheists have any good reason to
believe that it is true since the vast majority of atheists have made
no attempt to reflect on more than one or two of the many legitimate
concepts of God that exist both inside and outside of various
religious communities. Nor have they reflected on what criteria must
be satisfied in order for a concept of God to count as
“legitimate”, let alone on the possibility of legitimate
God concepts that have not yet been conceived and on the implications
of that possibility for the issue of whether or not global atheism is
justified. Furthermore, the most ambitious atheistic arguments popular
with philosophers, which attempt to show that the concept of God is
incoherent or that God’s existence is logically incompatible
either with the existence of certain sorts of evil or with the
existence of certain sorts of non-belief [Schellenberg 2007]),
certainly won’t suffice to justify global atheism; for even if
they are sound, they assume that to be God a being must be omnipotent,
omniscient, and perfectly good, and as the character Cleanthes points
out at the beginning of Part XI of Hume’s Dialogues
(see also Nagasawa 2008), there are religiously adequate God-concepts
that don’t require God to have those attributes.

Global atheists might object that, even if atheism and (metaphysical)
naturalism are not identical, a belief in the former can be based on a
belief in the latter; in other words, if one has good arguments for
the view that nature is a closed system, then that removes any burden
to consider each God-concept separately, so long as all legitimate
concepts of God imply that God is a supernatural entity—that is,
an entity that is not natural, yet affects nature. Whether or not this
strategy for justifying global atheism works depends on whether it is
possible to define “naturalism” narrowly enough to imply
the non-existence of all Gods but not so narrowly that no convincing
arguments can be given for its truth. This is no easy task, especially
given recent work on naturalist forms of theism (e.g., Bishop 2008;
Buckareff & Nagasawa 2016: Part V; Diller & Kasher 2013: Part
X; and Ellis 2014). Nor is it obvious that evidential arguments from
evil can be extended to cover all legitimate God concepts, though if
all genuine theisms entail that ultimate reality is both aligned with
the good and salvific (in some religiously adequate sense of
“ultimate” and “salvific”), then perhaps they
can. The crucial point, however, is that no one has yet made that

Concerning the issue of what exactly counts as a legitimate or
religiously adequate concept of God, various approaches might be
taken. One general strategy is to identify the religious role or roles
that anything deserving of the name or title “God” must
play and then distinguish legitimate or illegitimate concepts of God
depending on whether anything falling under the concept in question
could or would successfully play that role. (See, for example, Le
Poidevin 2010: 52; and Leftow 2016: 66–71.)

A second approach (compatible with the first) assumes plausibly that
the word “God” is a title instead of a proper name and
then asks what qualifications are required to bear that title (Pike 1970). The
fact that most titles indicate either rank or function suggests that
the meaning of “God” has something to do either with
occupying a position in a hierarchy or performing some function. For
example, the common dictionary definition of “God” as the
Supreme Being and the Anselmian idea of God as the greatest possible
being suggest that the title “God” is rank-indicating,
while the definition of “God” as “ruler of the
universe” fits well with the view that “God” is
function-indicating and explains why the ordinary class noun,
“god”, might be defined as “ruler of some part of
the universe or of some sphere of human activity” (e.g.,
Neptune, god of the sea, and Mars, god of war).

A third approach (compatible with the first two) is to start from the
close connection in meaning between “God” and
“worship”. Worship appears to be essential to theistic
religions and thus an essential role that any being must play to
qualify for the title “God” is to be an appropriate object
of worship. Indeed, although there is risk of circularity here if
“worship” is defined in terms of the actions or attitudes
appropriately directed towards “God”, it would not be
obviously mistaken to claim that being worthy of some form of
religious worship is not just necessary for divinity but sufficient as
well, especially if worthiness of worship entails worthiness of
allegiance. Of course, forms of worship vary widely from one religion
to another, so even if worthiness of worship is the sole defining
feature of a God, that doesn’t mean that beliefs about what
these Gods are like won’t vary widely from one religion to
another. In some religions, especially (but not only) certain Western
monotheistic ones, worship involves total devotion and unconditional
commitment. To be worthy of that sort of worship (if that is even
possible when the pool of potential worshipers are autonomous
agents like most adult humans) requires an especially impressive God,
though it is controversial whether or not it requires a perfect

If the ambiguity that results from defining “God” in terms
of worthiness of worship is virtuous, then one might be tempted to
adopt the following account of global atheism and its opposite,
“versatile theism”:

global atheism: there are no beings worthy of religious worship.

versatile theism: there exists at least one being that is worthy of
some form of religious worship.

Notice that on this account of “global atheism”, the
atheist only denies the existence of beings that are worthy
of worship. Thus, not even a global atheist is committed to denying
the existence of everything that someone has called a god or
“God”. For example, even if the ancient Egyptians
worshipped the Sun and regarded it as worthy of such worship, the
global atheist need not deny the existence of the Sun. Instead, the
global atheist can claim that the ancient Egyptians were mistaken in
thinking that the Sun is worthy of religious worship.

Similarly, consider this passage at the beginning of Section XI of
David Hume’s Natural History of Religion:

If we examine, without prejudice, the ancient heathen mythology, as
contained in the poets, we shall not discover in it any such monstrous
absurdity, as we may at first be apt to apprehend. Where is the
difficulty in conceiving, that the same powers or principles, whatever
they were, which formed this visible world, men and animals, produced
also a species of intelligent creatures, of more refined substance and
greater authority than the rest? That these creatures may be
capricious, revengeful, passionate, voluptuous, is easily conceived;
nor is any circumstance more apt, among ourselves, to engender such
vices, than the license of absolute authority. And in short, the whole
mythological system is so natural, that, in the vast variety of
planets and world[s], contained in this universe, it seems more
than probable, that, somewhere or other, it is really carried into
. (Hume [1757] 1956: 53, emphasis added)

There is much debate about whether Hume was an atheist or a deist or
neither, but no one uses this passage to support the view that he was
actually a polytheist. Perhaps this is because, even if there are
natural alien beings that, much like the ancient Greek and Roman gods,
are far superior in power to humans but quite similar in their moral
and other psychological qualities, presumably no one, at least
nowadays, would be tempted to regard them as worthy of religious

One possible flaw in the proposed account of global atheism is that it
seems to imply overlap between deism and atheism. Of course, it
wasn’t that long ago when all deists were widely regarded as
atheists. These days, however, the term “deistic atheist”
or “atheistic deist” has an oxymoronic ring to it. Of
course, not all deists would count as atheists on the proposed
account, but some would. For example, consider a deist who believes
that, while a supernatural person intentionally designed the universe,
that deity did not specifically intend for intelligent life to evolve
and has no interest whatsoever in the condition or fate of such life.
Such a deity would not be worthy of anyone’s worship, especially
if worthiness of worship entails worthiness of allegiance, and so
would arguably not be a (theistic) god, which implies that an atheist
could on the proposed definition consistently believe in the existence
of such a deity. Perhaps, then, “global atheism” should be
defined as the position that both versatile theism and (versatile)
deism are false—that there are no beings worthy of religious
worship and also no cosmic creators or intelligent designers whether
worthy of worship (and allegiance) or not. Even this account of
“global atheism”, however, may not be sufficiently
inclusive since there are religious roles closely associated with the
title “God” (and thus arguably legitimate notions of God)
that could be played by something that is neither an appropriate
object of worship nor a cosmic designer or creator.

4. An Argument for Agnosticism

According to one relatively modest form of agnosticism, neither
versatile theism nor its denial, global atheism, is known to be
true. Robin Le Poidevin (2010: 76) argues for this position as

  • (1)There is
    no firm basis upon which to judge that theism or atheism is
    intrinsically more probable than the other.
  • (2)There is
    no firm basis upon which to judge that the total evidence favors
    theism or atheism over the other.

It follows from (1) and (2) that

  • (3)There is
    no firm basis upon which to judge that theism or atheism is more
    probable than the other.

It follows from (3) that

  • (4)Agnosticism
    is true: neither theism nor atheism is known
    to be true.

Le Poidevin takes “theism” in its broadest sense (which I
call to refer to the proposition that there exists a being that is the
ultimate and intentional cause of the universe’s existence and
the ultimate source of love and moral knowledge (2010: 52). (He
doesn’t use the term “versatile theism”, but this
would be his account of its meaning.) By the “intrinsic
probability” of a proposition, he means, roughly, the
probability that a proposition has “before the evidence starts
to come in” (2010: 49). This probability depends solely on a
considerations like the intrinsic features of the content
of the proposition in question (e.g., the size of that content).

Le Poidevin defends the first premise of this argument by stating
that, while intrinsic probability plausibly depends inversely on the
specificity of a claim (the less specific the claim, the more ways
there are for it to be true and so the more probable it is that it is
true), it is impossible to show that versatile theism is more specific
or less specific than its denial. This defense appears to be
incomplete, for Le Poidevin never shows that the intrinsic probability
of a proposition depends only on its specificity, and there
are good reasons to believe that this is not the case (see, for
example, Swinburne 2001: 80–102). Le Poidevin could respond,
however, that specificity is the only uncontroversial criterion of
intrinsic probability, and this lack of consensus on other criteria is
all that is needed to adequately defend premise

One way to defend the second premise is to review the relevant
evidence and argue that it is ambiguous (Le Poidevin 2010: chapter 4;
and Draper 2002). Another way is to point out that atheism, which is
just the proposition that theism is false, is compatible with a
variety of very different hypotheses, and these hypotheses
vary widely in how well they account for the total evidence. Thus, to
assess how well atheism accounts for the total evidence, one would
have to calculate a weighted average of how well these different
atheistic hypotheses account for the total evidence, where the weights
would be the different intrinsic probabilities of each of these
atheistic hypotheses. This task seems prohibitively difficult (Draper
2016) and in any case has not been attempted, which supports the claim
that there is no firm basis upon which to judge whether the total
evidence supports theism or atheism.

So-called “Reformed epistemologists” (e.g., Plantinga
2000) might challenge the second premise of the argument on the
grounds that many beliefs about God, like many beliefs about the past,
are “properly basic”—a result of the functioning of
a basic cognitive faculty called the “sensus
”—and so are, in effect, a part of the
total evidence with respect to which the probability of any statement
depends. The agnostic, however, might reply that this sense of the
divine, unlike memory, operates at most sporadically and far from
universally. Also, unlike other basic cognitive faculties, it can
easily be resisted, and the existence of the beliefs it is supposed to
produce can easily be explained without supposing that the faculty
exists at all. Thus, the analogy to memory is weak. Therefore, in the absence of some firmer basis upon which to judge that beliefs about God are properly a part
of the foundation of some theists’ belief systems, premise

Of course, even if the two premises of Le Poidevin’s argument
are true, it doesn’t follow that the argument is a good one. For
the argument also contains two inferences (from steps
step 3
and from step 3 to
step 4),
neither of which is obviously correct. Concerning the first
inference, suppose, for example, that even though there is no firm
basis upon which to judge which of theism and atheism is intrinsically
more probable (that is, Le Poidevin’s first premise is true),
there is firm basis upon which to judge that theism is not many times
more probable intrinsically than some specific version of atheism,
say, reductive physicalism. And suppose that, even though there is no
firm basis upon which to judge which of theism and atheism is favored
by the total evidence (that is, Le Poidevin’s second premise is
true), there is firm basis upon which to judge that the total evidence
very strongly favors reductive physicalism over theism (in the sense
that it is antecedently very many times more probable given reductive
physicalism than it is given theism). Then it follows that both of Le
Poidevin’s premises are true and yet (3) is false: there is a firm basis (that
includes the odds version of Bayes’ theorem applied to theism
and reductive physicalism instead of to theism and atheism) to judge
that reductive physicalism is more probable or even many times more
probable than theism and hence that theism is probably or even very
probably false. Arguably, no similar strategy
could be used to show that theism is probably true in spite of Le
Poidevin’s premises both being true. So it may be that Le
Poidevin’s premises, if adequately supported, establish that
theistic gnosticism is false (that is, that either agnosticism or
atheistic gnosticism is true) even if they don’t establish that
agnosticism is true.

5. An Argument for Global Atheism?

Almost all well-known arguments for atheism are arguments for a
particular version of local atheism. One possible exception to this
rule is an argument recently made popular by some New Atheists,
although it was not invented by them. Gary Gutting (2013) calls this
argument the “no arguments argument” for atheism:

  • (1)The
    absence of good reasons to believe that God exists is itself a good
    reason to believe that God does not exist.
  • (2)There is
    no good reason to believe that God exists.

It follows from (1) and (2) that

  • (3)There is
    good reason to believe that God does not exist.

Notice the obvious relevance of this argument to agnosticism.
According to one prominent member of the agnosticism family, we have
no good reason to believe that God exists and no good reason to
believe that God does not exist. Clearly, if the first premise of this
argument is true, then this version of agnosticism must be false.

Can the no arguments argument be construed as an argument for global
atheism? One might object that it is not, strictly speaking, an
argument for any sort of atheism since its conclusion is not that
atheism is true but instead that there is good reason to believe that
atheism is true. But that is just a quibble. Ultimately, whether this
argument can be used to defend global atheism depends on how its first
premise is defended.

The usual way of defending it is to derive it from some general
principle according to which lacking grounds for claims of a certain
sort is good reason to reject those claims. The restriction of this
principle to claims “of a certain sort” is crucial, since
the principle that the absence of grounds for a claim is in all cases
a good reason to believe that the claim is false is rather obviously
false. One might, for example, lack grounds for believing that the
next time one flips a coin it will come up heads, but that is not a
good reason to believe that it won’t come up heads.

A more promising approach restricts the principle to existence claims,
thereby turning it into a version of Ockham’s razor. According
to this version of the principle, the absence of grounds supporting a
positive existential statement (like “God
exists”—however “God” is understood) is a good
reason to believe that the statement is false (McLaughlin 1984). One
objection to this principle is that not every sort of thing is such
that, if it existed, then we would likely have good reason to believe
that it exists. Consider, for example, intelligent life in distant
galaxies (cf. Morris 1985).

Perhaps, however, an even more narrowly restricted principle would do
the trick: whenever the assumption that a positive existential claim
is true would lead one to expect to have grounds for its truth, the
absence of such grounds is a good reason to believe that the claim is
false. It might then be argued that (i) a God would be likely to
provide us with convincing evidence of Her existence and so (ii) the
absence of such evidence is a good reason to believe that God
does not exist. This transforms the no arguments argument into an
argument from divine hiddenness. It also transforms it into at best an
argument for local atheism, since even if the God of, say, classical
theism would not hide, not all legitimate God-concepts are such that a
being instantiating that concept would be likely to provide us with
convincing evidence of its existence.

6. Two Arguments for Local Atheism

6.1. How to Argue for Local Atheism

The sort of God in whose non-existence philosophers seem most
interested is the eternal, non-physical, omnipotent, omniscient, and
omnibenevolent (i.e., morally perfect) creator-God worshipped by many
theologically orthodox Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Let’s call
the proposition that a God of this sort exists
“omni-theism”. One interesting question, then, is how best
to argue for atheism understood locally as the proposition that
omni-theism is false.

It is often claimed that a good argument for atheism is impossible
because, while it is at least possible to prove that something of a
certain sort exists, it is impossible to prove that nothing of that
sort exists. One reason to reject this claim is that the descriptions
of some kinds of objects are self-contradictory. For example, we can
prove that no circular square exists because such an object would have
to be both circular and non-circular, which is impossible. Thus, one
way to argue for the nonexistence of the God of omni-theism (or
“omni-God” for short) is to argue that such a God is an
impossible object like a circular square.

Many attempts have been made to construct such arguments. For example,
it has been claimed that an omnibenevolent being would be impeccable
and so incapable of wrongdoing, while an omnipotent being would be
quite capable of doing things that would be wrong to do. There are,
however, sophisticated and plausible replies to arguments like these.
More importantly, even if such an argument succeeded, omni-theists
could plausibly claim that, by “omnipotent”, they mean,
not maximally powerful, but optimally powerful, where the optimal
degree of power may not be maximal if maximal power rules out
possessing the optimal degree of some other perfection like moral

Similar problems face attempts to show that omni-theism must be false
because it is incompatible with certain known facts about the world.
Such arguments typically depend on detailed and contested
interpretations of divine attributes like omnibenevolence.

A very different approach is based on the idea that disproof need not
be demonstrative. The goal of this approach is to show that the
existence of an omni-God is so improbable that confident belief in the
non-existence of such a God is justified. Two such arguments are
discussed in detail below: the “low priors argument” and
the “decisive evidence argument”. Each of these arguments
employs the same specific strategy, which is to argue that some
alternative hypothesis to omni-theism is many times more probable than
omni-theism. This doesn’t imply that the alternative hypothesis
is probably true, but it does imply that omni-theism is very probably
false. In the case of the second argument, the alternative hypothesis
(aesthetic deism) is arguably a form of theism, and even in the case
of the first argument it is arguable that the alternative hypothesis
(source physicalism) is compatible with some forms of theism (in
particular ones in which God is an emergent entity). This is not a
problem for either argument, however, precisely because both are
arguments for local atheism instead of global atheism.

6.2 The Low Priors Argument

The basic idea behind the low priors argument is that, even if the
agnostic is right that, when it comes to God’s existence, the
evidence is ambiguous or absent altogether, what follows is not that
theism has a middling probability all things considered, but instead
that theism is very probably false. This is said to follow because
theism starts out with a very low probability before taking into
account any evidence. (“Evidence” in this context refers
to factors extrinsic to a hypothesis that raise or lower its
probability.) Since ambiguous or absent evidence has no effect on that
prior or intrinsic probability, the posterior or all-things-considered
probability of theism is also very low. If, however, theism is very
probably false, then atheism must be very probably true and this
implies (according to the defender of the argument) that atheistic
belief is justified. (This last alleged implication is examined in section 7.)

This sort of argument is very relevant to the issue of which of
atheism and theism is the appropriate “default” position.
If theism has a sufficiently low intrinsic probability, then atheism
is arguably the correct default position in the sense that ambiguous
or absent evidence will justify, not suspending judgment on the issue
of God’s existence, but instead believing that God does not
exist. This is why Le Poidevin’s argument for agnosticism
includes, not just a premise asserting that the relevant evidence is
ambiguous, but also one asserting that, at least in the case of
versatile theism, we are in the dark when it comes to the issue of
which of theism and atheism has a higher intrinsic probability.
Unfortunately, much discussion of the issue of which position is the
correct “default position” or of who has the “burden
of proof” gets sidetracked by bad analogies to Santa Claus,
flying spaghetti monsters, and Bertrand Russell’s ([1952] 1997)
famous china teapot in elliptical orbit around the sun (see Garvey
2010 and van Inwagen 2012 for criticism of some of these analogies).
The low priors argument implicitly addresses this important issue in a
much more sophisticated and promising way.

In the version of the low priors argument formulated below, the basic
approach described above is improved by comparing omni-theism, not
simply to its denial, but instead to a more specific atheistic
hypothesis called “source physicalism”. Unlike ontological
physicalism, source physicalism is a claim about the source of mental
entities, not about their nature. Source physicalists, whether they
are ontological physicalists or ontological dualists, believe that the
physical world existed before the mental world and caused the mental
world to come into existence, which implies that all mental entities
are causally dependent on physical entities. Further, even if they are
ontological dualists, source physicalists need not claim that mental
entities never cause physical entities or other mental entities, but
they must claim that there would be no mental entities were it not for
the prior existence (and causal powers) of one or more physical
entities. The argument proceeds as follows:

  • (1)The
    total evidence does not favor omni-theism over source
  • (2)Source
    physicalism is many times more probable intrinsically than

It follows from (1) and (2) that

  • (3)Source
    physicalism is many times more probable than omni-theism.

It follows from (3) that

  • (4)Omni-theism
    is very probably false.

It follows from (4) that

  • (5)Atheism
    (understood here as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably

Only the argument’s two premises—steps (1) and
(2)—are controversial. The other steps in the argument all
clearly follow from previous steps.

A thorough examination of the arguments for and against premise (1) is obviously impossible here, but it is
worth mentioning that a defense of this premise need not claim that the known facts
typically thought by natural theologians to favor omni-theism over
competing hypotheses like source physicalism have no force. Instead, it could be claimed that whatever force they have is offset at least to some significant degree
by more specific facts favoring source physicalism over omni-theism.
Natural theologians routinely ignore these more specific facts and
thus appear to commit what might be called “the fallacy of understated
evidence”. More precisely, the point is this. Even when natural
theologians successfully identify some general fact about a topic that
is more probable given omni-theism than given source physicalism, they
ignore other more specific facts about that same topic, facts that,
given the general fact, appear to be significantly more probable given
source physicalism than given omni-theism.

For example, even if omni-theism is supported by the general fact that
the universe is complex, one should not ignore the more specific fact,
discovered by scientists, that underlying this complexity at the level
at which we experience the universe, is a much simpler early universe
from which this complexity arose, and also a much simpler contemporary
universe at the micro-level, one consisting of a relatively small
number of different kinds of particles all of which exist in one of a
relatively small number of different states. In short, it is important
to take into account, not just the general fact that the universe that
we directly experience with our senses is extremely complex, but also
the more specific fact that two sorts of hidden simplicity within the
universe can explain that complexity. Given that a complex universe
exists, this more specific fact is exactly what one would expect on
source physicalism, because, as the best natural theologians (e.g.,
Swinburne 2004) say, the complexity of the universe cries out for
explanation in terms of something simpler. There is, however, no
reason at all to expect this more specific fact on omni-theism since,
if those same natural theologians are correct, then a simple God
provides a simple explanation for the observed complexity of the
universe whether or not that complexity is also explained by any
simpler mediate physical causes.

Another example concerns consciousness. Its existence really does seem
to be more likely given omni-theism than given source physicalism (and
thus to raise the ratio of the probability of omni-theism to the
probability of source physicalism). But we know a lot more about
consciousness than just that it exists. We also know, thanks in part
to the relatively new discipline of neuroscience, that conscious
states in general and even the very integrity of our personalities,
not to mention the apparent unity of the self, are dependent to a very
high degree on physical events occurring in the brain. Given the
general fact that consciousness exists, we have reason on source
physicalism that we do not have on theism to expect these more
specific facts. Given theism, it would not be surprising at all if our
minds were more independent of the brain than they in fact are. After
all, if omni-theism is true, then at least one mind, God’s, does
not depend at all on anything physical. Thus, when the available
evidence about consciousness is fully stated, it is far from clear
that it significantly favors omni-theism.

Similar problems threaten to undermine appeals to fine-tuning—that
is, appeals to the fact that a number of apparently independent
physical parameters have values that, while not fixed by current
physical theory, nevertheless happen to fall within a relatively
narrow “life-permitting” range assuming no changes to
other parameters. Arguably, given that fine-tuning is required for
intelligent life and that an omni-God has reason to create intelligent
life, we have more reason to expect fine-tuning on omni-theism than on
source physicalism. Given such fine-tuning, however, it is far more
surprising on omni-theism than on source physicalism that our universe
is not teeming with intelligent life and that the most impressive
intelligent organisms we know to exist are merely human: self-centered
and aggressive primates who far too often kill, rape, and torture each

In fairness to omni-theism, however, most of those humans are moral
agents and many have religious experiences apparently of God. The
problem is that, while the existence of moral agents is
“predicted” by omni-theism better than by source
physicalism, it is also true that, given their existence, the variety
and frequency of easily avoidable conditions that promote morally bad
behavior and that severely limit the freedom, agency, and autonomy of
countless human beings are much more likely on source physicalism. And
while religious experiences apparently of God are no doubt more to be
expected if an omni-God exists than if human beings are the product of
blind physical forces, it is also true that, given that such
experiences do occur, various facts about their distribution that
should be surprising to theists are exactly what one would expect on
source physicalism, such as the fact that many people never have them
and the fact that those who do have them almost always have either a
prior belief in God or extensive exposure to a theistic religion.

It seems, then, that when it comes to evidence favoring omni-theism
over source physicalism, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Further, when combined with the fact that what we know about the level
of well-being of sentient beings and the extent of their suffering is
arguably vastly more probable on source physicalism than on theism, a
very strong though admittedly controversial case for premise
can be made.

What about premise
Again, a serious case can be made for its truth. Such a case first
compares source physicalism, not to omni-theism, but to its opposite,
source idealism. Source idealists believe that the mental world
existed before the physical world and caused the physical world to
come into existence. This view is consistent with both ontological
idealism and ontological dualism, and also with physical entities
having both physical and mental effects. It entails, however, that all
physical entities are, ultimately, causally dependent on one or more
mental entities, and so is not consistent with ontological
physicalism. The symmetry of source physicalism and source idealism is
a good pro tanto reason to believe they are equally probable
intrinsically. They are equally specific, they have the same
ontological commitments, neither can be formulated more elegantly than
the other, and each appears to be equally coherent and equally
intelligible. They differ on the issue of what is causally dependent
on what, but if Hume is right and causal dependence relations can only
be discovered by observation and not a priori, then that
won’t affect the intrinsic probabilities of the two

Omni-theism, however, is a very specific version of source idealism;
it entails that source idealism is true but goes far beyond source
idealism by making a number of very specific claims about the sort of
“mental world” that produced the physical world. For
example, it adds the claim that a single mind created the physical
universe and that this mind is not just powerful but specifically
omnipotent and not just knowledgeable but specifically omniscient. In
addition, it presupposes a number of controversial metaphysical and
meta-ethical claims by asserting in addition that this being is both
eternal and objectively morally perfect. If any of these specific
claims and presuppositions is false, then omni-theism is false. Thus,
omni-theism is a very specific and thus intrinsically very risky form
of source idealism, and thus is many times less probable intrinsically
than source idealism. Therefore, if, as argued above, source
physicalism and source idealism are equally probable intrinsically,
then it follows that premise
is true: source physicalism is many times more probable intrinsically
than omni-theism.

6.3 The Decisive Evidence Argument

Notice that the general strategy of the particular version of the low
priors argument discussed above is to find an alternative to
omni-theism that is much less specific than omni-theism (and
partly for that reason much more probable intrinsically),
while at the same time having enough content of the right sort to fit
the totality of the relevant data at least as well as theism does. In
other words, the goal is to find a runner like source physicalism that
begins the race with a large head start and thus wins by a large
margin because it runs the race for supporting evidence and thus for
probability at roughly the same speed as omni-theism does. This
doesn’t show that source physicalism is probable (a “large
margin” in this context means a large ratio of one probability
to another, not a large difference between the probabilities), because
there may be even better runners in the race; it does, however, show
that omni-theism loses the race by a large margin and thus is very
probably false.

An alternative strategy is to find a runner that begins the race tied
with omni-theism, but runs the race for evidential support much faster
than omni-theism does, thus once again winning the race by a margin
that is sufficiently large for the rest of the argument to go through.
A good name for an argument pursuing this second strategy is the
“decisive evidence argument”. The choice of alternative
hypothesis is crucial here just as it was in the low priors argument.
One promising choice is “aesthetic deism”. (Another would
be a more detailed version of source physicalism that, unlike source
physicalism in general, makes the relevant data antecedently much more
probable than theism does.) In order to help ensure that omni-theism
and aesthetic deism begin the race at the same starting
line—that is, have the same intrinsic
probability—“aesthetic deism” is best defined in
such a way that it is almost identical to omni-theism. Thus, it may be
stipulated that, like omni-theism, aesthetic deism implies that an
eternal, non-physical, omnipotent, and omniscient being created the
physical world. The only difference, then, between the God of
omni-theism and the deity of aesthetic deism is what motivates them.
An omni-theistic God would be morally perfect and so strongly
motivated by considerations of the well-being of sentient creatures.
An aesthetic deistic God, on the other hand, would prioritize
aesthetic goods over moral ones. While such a being would want a
beautiful universe, perhaps the best metaphor here is not that of a
cosmic artist, but instead that of a cosmic playwright: an
author of nature who wants above all to write an interesting

As everyone knows, good stories never begin with the line “and
they lived happily ever after”, and that line is the last line
of any story that contains it. Further, containing such a line is
hardly necessary for a story to be good. If aesthetic deism is true,
then it may very well be true that, “all the world’s a
stage, and all the men and women merely players”
(emphasis added). In any case, the hypothesis of aesthetic deism makes
“predictions” about the condition of sentient beings in
the world that are very different from the ones that the hypothesis of
omni-theism makes. After all, what makes a good story good is often
some intense struggle between good and evil, and all good stories
contain some mixture of benefit and harm. This suggests that the
observed mixture of good and evil in our world decisively favors
aesthetic deism over omni-theism. And if that’s right, then
aesthetic deism pulls far ahead of omni-theism in the race for
probability, thereby proving that omni-theism is very improbable.

Here is one possible formulation of this argument:

  • (1)Aesthetic
    deism is at least as probable intrinsically as
  • (2)The
    total evidence excluding “the data of good and evil” does
    not favor omni-theism over aesthetic deism.
  • (3)Given
    the total evidence excluding the data of good and evil, the data of
    good and evil strongly favor aesthetic deism over

It follows from (1), (2), and (3) that

  • (4)Aesthetic
    deism is many times more probable than

It follows from (4) that

  • (5)Omni-theism
    is very probably false.

It follows from (5) that

  • (6)Atheism
    (understood here as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably

Steps (4)–(6) of this argument are the same as steps
(3)–(5) of the low priors argument except that “source
physicalism” in step (3) of the low priors argument is replaced
by “aesthetic deism” in step (4) of the decisive evidence
argument. This makes no difference as far as the inference from step
(4) to step (5) is concerned. That inference, like the inferences from
steps (1)–(3) to step (4) and from step (5) to step (6), is
clearly correct. The key question, then, is whether premises (1), (2),
and (3) are all true.

In spite of the nearly complete overlap between omni-theism and
aesthetic deism, Richard Swinburne (2004: 96–109) would
challenge premise
on the grounds that aesthetic deism, unlike omni-theism, must posit a
bad desire to account for why the deity does not do what is morally
best. Omni-theism need not do this, according to Swinburne, because
what is morally best just is what is overall best, and thus an
omniscient being will of necessity do what is morally best so long as
it has no desires other than the desires it has simply by virtue of
knowing what the best thing to do is in any given situation. This
challenge depends, however, on a highly questionable motivational
intellectualism: it succeeds only if merely believing that an action
is good entails a desire to do it. On most theories of motivation,
there is a logical gap between the intellect and desire. If such a gap
exists, then it would seem that omni-theism is no more probable
intrinsically than aesthetic deism.

It’s hard to think of a plausible challenge to premise
because, at least when it comes to the usual evidence taken to favor
theism over competing hypotheses like naturalism, aesthetic deism
accounts for that evidence at least as well as omni-theism does. For
example, a deity interested in good narrative would want a world that
is complex and yet ordered, that contains beauty, consciousness,
intelligence, and moral agency. Perhaps there is more reason to expect
the existence of libertarian free will on omni-theism than on
aesthetic deism; but unless one starts from the truth of omni-theism,
there seems to be little reason to believe that we have such freedom.
And even if one takes seriously introspective or other non-theological
evidence for libertarian free will, it is not difficult to construct a
“de-odicy” here: a good explanation in terms of aesthetic
deism either of the existence of libertarian free will or of why there
is apparently strong but ultimately misleading evidence for its
existence. For example, if open theists are right that not even an
omniscient being can know with certainty what (libertarian) free
choices will be made in the future, then aesthetic deism could account
for libertarian free will and other sorts of indeterminacy by claiming
that a story with genuine surprises is better than one that is
completely predictable. Alternatively, what might be important for the
story is only that the characters think they have free will, not that
they really have it.

Finally, there is premise
which asserts that the data of good and evil decisively favors
aesthetic deism over theism. In this context, the “data of good
and evil” include everything we know about how sentient beings,
including humans, are benefitted or harmed. A full discussion of this
premise is not possible here, but recognition of its plausibility
appears to be as old as the problem of evil itself. Consider, for
example, the Book of Job, whose protagonist, a righteous man who
suffers horrifically, accuses God of lacking sufficient commitment to
the moral value of justice. The vast majority of commentators agree
that God does not directly respond to Job’s charge. Instead,
speaking out of the whirlwind, He describes His design of the cosmos
and of the animal kingdom in a way clearly intended to emphasize His
power and the grandeur of His creation. Were it not for theological
worries about God’s moral perfection, the most natural
interpretation of this part of the story would be either that God
agrees with Job’s charge that He is unjust or that God denies
that Job can sensibly apply terms like “just” and
“unjust” to Him because He and Job are not members of any
shared moral community (Morriston forthcoming; for an opposing view,
see Stump 2010: chapter 9). This is why Job’s first response to
God’s speech (before capitulating in his second response) is
just to refuse to repeat his (unanswered) accusation. On this
interpretation, the creator that confronts Job is not the God he
expected and definitely not the God of omni-theism, but rather a being
much more like the deity of aesthetic deism.

Those who claim that a God might allow evil because it is the inevitable
result of the universe being governed by laws of nature also lend
support, though unintentionally, to the idea that, if there is an
author of nature, then that being is more likely motivated by
aesthetic concerns than moral ones. For example, it may be that
producing a universe governed by a few laws expressible as elegant
mathematical equations is an impressive accomplishment, not just
because of the wisdom and power required for such a task, but also
because of the aesthetic value of such a universe. That value may very
well depend, however, on the creator’s choosing not to intervene
regularly in nature to protect His creatures from harm.

Much of the aesthetic value of the animal kingdom may also depend on
its being the result of a long evolutionary process driven by
mechanisms like natural selection. As Darwin (1859) famously said in
the last lines of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers,
having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and
that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed
law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most
beautiful and wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

Unfortunately, such a process, if it is to produce sentient life, may
also entail much suffering and countless early deaths. One
questionable assumption of some natural order theodicists is to think
that such connections between aesthetic goods and suffering provide a
moral justification for God’s allowing horrific
suffering. It is arguably far more plausible that in such a scenario the value
of preventing horrendous suffering would, from a moral point of view,
far outweigh the value of regularity, sublimity, and narrative. If so,
then a morally perfect God would not trade the former for the
latter though a deity motivated primarily by aesthetic reasons no
doubt would.

To summarize, nearly everyone agrees that the world contains both
goods and evils. Pleasure and pain, love and hate, achievement and
failure, flourishing and languishing, and virtue and vice all exist in
great abundance. In spite of that, some see signs of cosmic
teleology. Those who defend the version of the decisive evidence
argument stated above need not deny the teleology. They do need to
show that it is far easier to make sense of the “strange mixture
of good and ill, which appears in life” (Hume Dialogues, XI, 14) when that teleology is interpreted as amoral instead of as moral
(cf. Mulgan 2015 and Murphy 2017) and in particular when it is
interpreted as directed towards aesthetic ends instead of towards
moral ends.

7. An Argument against Agnosticism

The topic in
section 4
was Le Poidevin’s argument for the truth of a modest form of
agnosticism. In this section, an argument for the falsity of a more
ambitious form of agnosticism will be examined. Because the sort of
agnosticism addressed in this section is more ambitious than the sort
defended by Le Poidevin, it is conceivable that both arguments succeed
in establishing their conclusions.

In Le Poidevin’s argument, the term “agnosticism”
refers to the position that neither versatile theism nor global
atheism is known to be true. In this section,
“agnosticism” refers to the position that
neither the belief that omni-theism is true nor the belief that it is
false is rationally permissible. This form of agnosticism is more
ambitious because knowledge is stronger (in the logical sense) than rational permissibility: it can be
rationally permissible to believe propositions that are not known to
be true, but a proposition cannot be known to be true by someone who
is not rationally permitted to believe it. Thus, an appropriate
name for this form of agnosticism is “strong

Another difference concerns the object of the two forms of
agnosticism. The agnosticism in Le Poidevin’s argument concerned
versatile theism versus global atheism. In this section, the target is
omni-theism versus the local atheistic position that omni-theism is
false. The previous section focused on two arguments for the
conclusion that this form of local atheism is very probably true. In
this section, the question is whether or not that conclusion, if
established, could ground a successful argument against strong

Such an argument can be formulated as follows:

  • (1)Atheism
    (understood here as the denial of omni-theism) is very probably
  • (2)If atheism
    is very probably true, then atheistic belief is rationally

It follows from (1) and (2) that

  • (3)Atheistic
    belief is rationally permissible.
  • (4)If strong
    agnosticism (about omni-theism) is true (that is, if withholding
    judgment about the truth or falsity of omni-theism is rationally
    required), then atheistic belief is not rationally

It follows from (3) and (4) that

  • (5)Strong
    agnosticism (about omni-theism) is false.

Premise (1)
was defended in
section 6,
premise (4) is true by the definition of “strong
agnosticism”, and steps
follow from earlier steps by modus ponens and modus
, respectively. This leaves premise
the premise that, if atheism is very probably true, then atheistic
belief is rationally permissible.

One might attempt to defend this premise by claiming that the
probabilities in
premise (2)
are rational credences and hence the truth of the so-called Lockean
thesis (Foley 1992) justifies (2):

It is rational for a person S to believe a proposition P
if and only if it is rational for S’s credence in
P to be sufficiently high to make S’s attitude
towards P one of belief.

The Lockean thesis, however, is itself in need of justification.
Fortunately, though, nothing so strong as the Lockean thesis is needed
to defend
premise (2).
For one thing, all the defender of (2) needs is an “if”,
not an “if and only if”. Also, the defender of (2) need
not equate, as the Lockean thesis does, the attitude of belief with
having a high credence. Thus, all that is required is the following
more modest thesis (call it “T”):

  • (T)
    If it is rationally permissible for S’s credence in a proposition
    P to be (very) high, then it is rationally permissible
    for S to believe P.

Even this more modest thesis, however, is controversial, because adopting it commits one to the position
that rational (i.e., rationally permissible) belief is not closed under conjunction. In other words, it commits one to the position that it is possible for each of a number of beliefs to be rational even though the additional belief that those beliefs are all true is not rational.

To see why this is so, imagine that a million lottery tickets have been sold. Each player purchased only a single ticket, and exactly one of the players is certain to win. Now imagine further that an informed observer has a distinct belief about each of the million individual players that that particular player will lose. According to thesis T, each of those million beliefs is rational. For example, if Sue is one of the players, then according to T the observer’s belief that Sue will lose is rational because it is rational for the observer to have a (very) high credence in the proposition that Sue will lose. Since, however, it is certain that someone will win, it is also rational for the observer to believe that some player will win. It is not rational,
however, to have contradictory beliefs, so it is not rational for the observer
to believe that no player will win. This implies, however, that
rational belief is not closed under conjunction, for the proposition
that no player will win just is the conjunction of all of the
propositions that say of some individual player that they will

Defenders of
premise (2)
will claim, very plausibly, that the implication of T that rational belief
is not closed under conjunction is completely innocuous. Isn’t
it obvious, for example, that it would not be rational for a fallible
human being to believe that all of their many beliefs are true, even
if each of those beliefs were rational? Others (e.g., Oppy 1994: 151),
however, regard the conclusion that rational belief is not closed
under conjunction as unacceptable and will for that reason reject
premise (2). So even if it can be shown that omni-theism is very
probably false, it still won’t be obvious to everyone that
it is rationally permissible to be a local atheist about omni-theism and thus it still won’t be obvious to everyone that strong agnosticism about omni-theism is false.


via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

August 2, 2017 at 10:58AM