© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

the certainty myth

There is a criticism of atheism that never ceases to flummox and irritate me. Atheists are fools, goes the line, because you can’t be 100% certain God doesn’t exist.

Here are a few definitions of atheist that most people would agree with:

– Someone who denies the existence of God (WordNet)

– One who believes that there is no God (Webster’s New 20th Century)

– Somebody who does not believe in God or deities (Encarta Dictionary)

Nowhere is reference made to “Someone who claims to know there is no God.” There’s nothing about certainty. The atheist says, “You believe God exists, eh? Hm. Not me.” It’s quite simple. Elegantly so.

I’ve never met an atheist who was quite dense enough to claim certain knowledge of the nonexistence of God. Aside from the difficulty in proving a negative (i.e. I would also be unable to say for certain that there’s no teapot orbiting Jupiter), certainty itself is a bogus concept. The best we can do is increase or decrease our confidence in a proposition.

I don’t think God exists, and theists think he does. Why, in that equation, are atheists tagged as arrogant asserters of certainty, while theists get a pass? I don’t get it.

I saw this most recently, and depressingly, when a Google alert of mine popped an old blog entry by Dilbert creator Scott Adams into my inbox. It includes this passage:

This brings me to atheists. In order to be certain that God doesn’t exist, you have to possess a godlike mental capacity –- the ability to be 100% certain. A human can’t be 100% certain about anything. Our brains aren’t that reliable. Therefore, to be a true atheist, you have to believe you are the very thing that you argue doesn’t exist: God.

Chuckle. I guess.

Adams is an agnostic himself, and I assume and hope he’s just riffing for laughs. Surely he knows that his beliefs are identical to almost any given atheist. Surely. Well, I’m not so sure. Many people hold this incredibly daft assumption, and few apply it to theists, as if belief is the default and atheism an assertion.

And I know where the problem started.

The problem, ironically, was started by my hero, Thomas Huxley. Prior to his coining of the word “agnostic,” it was probably understood that atheists were people who simply said, “I don’t believe in God.” Huxley wasn’t somewhere in the muddy, shrugging middle, 51-49 for-or-against belief. He had a very strong conviction that God did not exist. But it wasn’t certain, and he wanted to underline this, so he created the word “agnostic” (Latin for “not knowing”) to name what should damn well be true of the entire human race. None of us knows…but surely it’s OK to say what you think the deal is.

Thanks to our monkey tendencies, though, the upshot of Huxley’s clarifying coinage was greater confusion. Agnosticism was instantly assumed to mean “don’t know, don’t care,” and the myth of atheism as an assertion of absolute certainty was reinforced by contrast to the new term. Neither is accurate (as Russell will show shortly). They are really two different ways of saying the same thing: I think God is pretend. Agnosticism simply leans on the word “think,” and atheism leans on “pretend.”

Bertrand Russell himself was conflicted on this point, and referred to himself as an atheist or an agnostic depending on the audience:

I never know whether I should say “Agnostic” or whether I should say “Atheist”. It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.


None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of Homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.

from “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?” in A Plea for Tolerance in the Face of New Dogmas (1947)

Unfortunately, in the essay “What is an Agnostic?”, Russell gives this unhelpful backhand, even though it is written for an entirely popular audience:

An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.


I, like every atheist I know, am an atheist and an agnostic and a humanist and a freethinker. Each has a different emphasis; all are compatible. Questions?



This was written on Monday, 19. May 2008 at 17:03 and was filed under critical thinking, humor, Kerfuffles, nonbelief and nonbelievers. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I get what you are saying and it makes perfect sense, but, as in so many cases, we, as a culture, have moved past the dictionary meaning of the words and now each word has different connotations. Do you think it is unfair to say that people who identify themselves as agnostic take refuge in the “middle” ground it connotes? An agnostic is harmless. An atheist is radical and dangerous. There is some sense of safety in calling yourself agnostic as opposed to an atheist. And, theists probably see agnostics as a person they could “reason” with and probably convince to switch sides. They probably view atheists as unreasonable. So, if you are a person who really wants to avoid conflict over this issue altogether you classify yourself as agnostic. If you are less concerned with offending or being ostracized, so to speak, you might self-identify as atheist. You could kind of think of agnostics as closet atheists.

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 19. May 2008 @ 10:34 pm

  2. Oh, by the way, didn’t you know they found Russel’s teapot?

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 19. May 2008 @ 10:36 pm

  3. I meant:
    Oh, by the way, didn’t you know they found Russel’s teapot?

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 19. May 2008 @ 10:38 pm

  4. You could kind of think of agnostics as closet atheists.

    Exactly my point. They differ only in emphasis.

    we, as a culture, have moved past the dictionary meaning of the words

    Yes and no, I’d say, since dictionaries follow and reflect usage. In this case I’m citing the dictionary because it matches the reality I observe quite well.

    Comment: Dale – 20. May 2008 @ 7:20 am

  5. Great post. I think you’re exactly right. I think most of the posts at my rarely updated blog are about semantics. (Actually no, I just looked at the tag distribution. Just 25% Ha!) Here’s one of them:


    Our local atheist group sets out a table in the summer to interact with the public, and it seems like most of our heated arguments are with “militant agnostics” not theists. But then again, this is NYC and we have too many post-modernists slithering about.

    Comment: ThatAtheistGuy – 20. May 2008 @ 10:27 am

  6. These bumper stickers always give me a chuckle.

    Militant Agnostic
    I don’t know, and you don’t either!

    Comment: Ryan – 20. May 2008 @ 3:58 pm

  7. There was a thread recently on Julia Sweeney’s forum regarding this very thing. The poster suggested that since there are variations on what type of a believer or non-believer one can be, what made sense to him was to combine the terms to make it more clear. Here’s the list he came up with:

    Agnostic-Theist: “I don’t know for sure, but I believe a god exists.”
    Gnostic-Theist: “I know for certain that a god does exist.”
    Agnostic-Atheist: “I don’t know for sure, but I do not believe a god exists.”
    Gnostic-Atheist: “I know for certain that no god exists.”

    Under that schema, I would definitely be considered an Agnostic-Atheist…

    Comment: Thranil – 21. May 2008 @ 9:45 am

  8. Thranil, I’ve seen that before, and I’ve often referred to myself as an Agnostic Atheist-and then always had to explain what that meant!

    Comment: matsonwaggs – 21. May 2008 @ 9:50 am

  9. The problem with that breakdown is that both Gnostic categories are impossible. As Dale pointed out, *knowing for certain* that God exists is just as big a falsehood as *knowing for certain* that God doesn’t.

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 21. May 2008 @ 9:57 am

  10. How about just one category:

    Human: “I dunno squat for sure, but I sure gots my opinions.”

    Comment: Dale – 21. May 2008 @ 10:50 am

  11. I like the term agtheist. It has a double meaning, as it’s also the sound an agtheist makes when they see a bible thumper coming. Ahhhg! Theist!

    Comment: boonxeven – 21. May 2008 @ 12:22 pm

  12. Great post! I’ve been frustrated by this same argument myself.

    To nitpick for a moment, I don’t like the first two dictionary definitions — “someone who denies the existance of God” and “one who believes that there is no God” both seems to make atheism more of an active claim than it really is. By these definitions it sounds like atheists are tromping around going “I deny God” and “I believe in No God.” That’s not really it. The third one by contrast is just right — “someone who does not believe in God or deities.” Exactly right, and much closer to some definitions of agnostic, which much less of an implication of certainty about it. It’s a lack of belief in something rather than a belief in nothing.

    Okay, enough of my nitpicky semantics for the day. 🙂

    Comment: CampQuestAmanda – 21. May 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  13. Yes, #3 is the best fit for me as well, though I don’t necessarily read stomping into the first two, either.

    Comment: Dale – 22. May 2008 @ 8:53 am

  14. Discussions like these always remind me of the late great Douglas Adams and his interview with American Atheist (http://www.americanatheist.org/win98-99/T2/silverman.html). Pure genius:

    AMERICAN ATHEIST: Mr. Adams, you have been described as a “radical Atheist.” Is this accurate?

    DNA: “Yes. I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god – in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously. It’s funny how many people are genuinely surprised to hear a view expressed so strongly. In England we seem to have drifted from vague wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague wishy-washy Agnosticism – both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about things too much.

    “People will then often say “But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?” This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would chose not to worship him anyway.)

    “Other people will ask how I can possibly claim to know? Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say no for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance and takes me on to my second reason.

    “I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me “Well, you haven’t been there, have you? You haven’t seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid” – then I can’t even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.”

    Comment: Theo – 22. May 2008 @ 3:57 pm

  15. Fantastic! As usual, Adams hits it right on the head. Even though he is asserting it vigorously, his position is quite the same as what I’ve described, courtesy of this sentence: I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. He’s neither certain nor ambivalent.

    There’s no contradiction between knowing you could be wrong and having the strong conviction that you aren’t. The combination, in fact, is a good definition of good science.

    Comment: Dale – 22. May 2008 @ 5:18 pm

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