Agnosticism, Atheism, and Theodicy: Yours truly the blasphemer

So here I am on Twitter, yet again, explaining the difference between agnosticism and atheism. And yes, there are authoritative definitions of the terms that go beyond conventional dictionaries, which can lean too heavily in favor of popular misunderstandings (for example, anarchy). (Sigh.)

atheism. Conventionally defined as ‘disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a GOD’ (Oxford English Dictonary), the meaning of ‘atheism’ is, in reality, context-specific, determined by the dominant forms of religious BELIEF in any particular time and place. In the ancient world, the charge of atheism was levelled [sic] against the philosophical and theological opponents of polytheistic orthodoxies, including Jews and Christians, but it is their theism which constitutes the semantic background to most forms of atheism in the modern world.

Some modern atheists identify with traditional critiques of theism, claiming there is no good reason to believe in God or — perhaps invoking the existence and extent of apparently pointless suffering — that there is good reason not to. For others, however, theism is not so much unbelievable as unintelligible, and therefore incapable of being true or false, or unacceptable, in the sense that God must be denied (or defied) for the sake of humanity. This ‘postulatory atheism’ is rooted in Feuerbach and ‘the masters of suspicion’. Marx, Nietzche and Freud, who reinterpreted the origins and functions of RELIGION in radically naturalistic ways, and expressed in the work of Camus, Sartre and many other 20th-century writers and artists (see MARXISM; FREUDIAN; EXISTENTIALISM). For further reading: M. Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990).[1]

agnosticism. The philosophical position which claims that it is impossible in principle (or at least in practice) to know whether GOD exists or not. The term itself was coined in 1869 by the biologist and essayist T. H. Huxley, and was designed to distinguish his position from that of THEISM and ATHEISM, which, from an agnostic point of view, make claims that cannot possibly be justified. The phenomenon it names, however, is much older, and is in effect the application of philosophical scepticism to the question of the existence of God. Huxley’s agnosticism is related to Kant’s critique, a century before, of ‘speculative’ theism and atheism, on the grounds that there can be no knowledge of that which transcends all possible experience; but Huxley’s agnosticism perhaps owes less to Kant (who thought that faith remained rational as a postulate of the ethical life) than to English EMPIRICISM, which had long emphasized the duty to proportion one’s belief to the available evidence (see EVIDENTIALISM). The even-handedness of Huxley’s position has proved unsustainable, as understandings of agnosticism have proliferated, except, ironically, in the popular (mis)interpretation of agnosticism as a kind of ‘don’t know’ option in the great metaphysical opinion poll of life.[2]

What I said holds up well:

The Norton definition of atheism, quoted above, refers to theodicy with its reference to “the existence and extent of apparently pointless suffering,”[3] which I understand from Cornel West,[4] and which I addressed subsequently:

The Norton definition goes on to refer obliquely to the question of free will with “the sense that God must be denied (or defied) for the sake of humanity,”[5] but this requires a leap from the mere existence of a deity to a postulate that that deity has a “plan,” which traditionalist conservatives say humans cannot successfully defy, even in the pursuit of social justice,[6] and then that therefore such a plan must be defied to affirm free will. Given an assertion that this god does not exist, that’s quite a flight of reasoning.

Christians sometimes address theodicy by suggesting that this is their god’s way of granting humans free will, which is to say that humans can only choose between good and evil if both exist. “Original sin” thus requires humans to affirm a choice for “good” over “evil” on pain of eternal damnation. Note that the choice of “good” is not here good for its own sake but rather as a means to avoid punishment. This binary then requires us to believe that punishment is actually good rather than that it is a perhaps necessary evil. And in truth, it bizarrely reduces “free will” to a choice between “good” and “evil.”

But my god. It is clear I blaspheme from the replies. Which is as clear a proof of atheistic faith as you’ll ever find.

  1. [1]Colin Crowder, Norton Dictionary of Modern Thought (1990), s.v. atheism.
  2. [2]Colin Crowder, Norton Dictionary of Modern Thought (1990), s.v. agnosticism.
  3. [3]Colin Crowder, Norton Dictionary of Modern Thought (1990), s.v. atheism.
  4. [4]Cornel West, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud (Carlsbad, CA: SmileyBooks, 2009).
  5. [5]Colin Crowder, Norton Dictionary of Modern Thought (1990), s.v. atheism.
  6. [6]Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001).

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