Is Atheism a Tenable Position?


An interesting thread developing on Twitter with philosophybites – Nigel Warburton under the covers – around ideas of atheism and agnosticism. It’s building towards a telephone discussion on BBC Radio Five Live tonight from 1am (one for the podcast) about whether we should all just say we’re agnostics.

Nigel notes today that there is ‘no problem being an atheist who recognizes limits to human knowledge.‘ And that ‘we should still go for the best explanation available.

I think there is possibly a contradiction here. If we are prepared to accept that there are limits to human knowledge – and I think it’s pretty well established that we should – then to decide upon either decision beyond that has, by definition, to be a matter of faith.

If we are going for the ‘best explanation available’ then that is evidence that is part of the canon of human knowledge. The trouble is, it is the stuff beyond the possibility explanation that is under negotiation. This is not to go for a ‘God of the gaps’ position, but to appreciate that both science and religion have had to come to tough conclusions that there are things that we simply cannot know. Hypothesise, yes. But know – no.

Which I think then leaves us with atheism as an untenable position. As untenable as faith. We cannot hold these positions in our hands. They are un-tenable, irrational. We have to sense them, be tantalised by them, pick up sugggestions of them. But let’s not fool ourselves – atheists or people of faith, that we can unproblematically decide and then damn the rest.

[Image ‘White Awaken From the Unknowing’  Afrocityblog]


4 responses to “Is Atheism a Tenable Position?”

  1. Even the ‘evidence’ that is within the realm of human knowledge is constantly under negotiation. The functional difference between that which we know and that which we don’t is how many people agree, how much social backing a position or piece of knowledge holds.

    In communities I have participated in, faith has functioned as that which makes decision unproblematic. Faith appears as that which, fully accepted, allows us to live without doubt. Yet the definition leaves atheism and theism in an equally tenable position. An understanding that faith is that which allows tenable knowledge makes it tenable for those who subscribe to the definition.

    Those of us for whom faith and knowledge are, in some sense, a priori problematic are left to discuss their untenability and, perhaps, try to convince others.

  2. Without having read the Twitter thread, I must say that agnosticism, atheism, theism, and pantheism are all based on subjective experience and cannot be confirmed by sound empirical evidence. God cannot be measured; nor can the lack thereof of God (Goddess, god, gods, goddesses) be proven. For everyone to claim agnosticism is simply to ascribe to yet another belief system that cannot be proven. Unlike Matt, I believe that all positions are logically untenable. That being said, humans are not logical beings, and accepting a system based on a posteriori evidence that cannot be scientifically confirmed (i.e., personal experience) is merely to choose that set of beliefs that creates the greatest good for that individual. The fact that this method is ultimately subjective does make it logically imprudent to “damn the rest,” except in clear cases of harm (although arguments about the harm of particular belief systems could go on ad infinitum).

    While faith does function to make decision-making unproblematic in some communities and societies, that does not necessarily make it tenable. If difficulty in decision making can be called “doubt,” then “doubt” would have to be proven as “bad” and certainty “good” in order for that to happen; without doubt, there would be no knowledge, so that would bring us to the argument that faith suppresses knowledge. While that may or may not be true, I am fairly certain that this was not the purpose of Matt’s argument. 🙂

  3. Atheism is not a belief that there is no god(s). It is a lack of belief in god(s). This is a crucial distinction.

    People who subscribe to a religion are atheists with respect to all the others. A christian does not believe in the Greek gods, the Roman gods, the gods of the Amerindians, the gods of the far eastern religions etc etc. An atheist just adds one more god to the list of gods that he/she does not believe in. How is that an untenable position?

    How does any believer know which religion to follow? There are so many, and all claim to worship the only true god(s). Imagine if you were wrong, and that you subscribed to the wrong religion for your entire life. Isn’t that a bit worrying? What are the chances you have the right one? Number of fellow believers should be no guide – there are plenty of historical examples of large numbers of people believing things we now know to be true.

  4. ….plenty of historical examples of large numbers of people believing things we now know to be UNtrue.

    I knew I should have read it properly before submitting 😉