Atheism and Agnosticism

An atheist believes there is no God. An agnostic believes we are unable to know whether or not there is a God. Although the word "agnosticism" was invented by T.H. Huxley (1825-95), the position is very old, going back to the Greek Sceptics.

Atheism and Agnosticism

An atheist believes there is no God. An agnostic believes we are unable to know whether or not there is a God. Although the word "agnosticism" was invented by T.H. Huxley (1825-95), the position is very old, going back to the Greek Sceptics. Since in practice the agnostic cannot commit himself to religious belief any more than the atheist can, believers seldom distinguish between them. Both views are widespread today, for 3 main reasons.

First, the enormous growth of scientific knowledge has required no use of the idea of God: there is no Christian physics or chemistry. Since claims about God cannot be tested by science, atheists reject them, and agnostics say we cannot decide about them. Second, the power of technology has reduced the human sense of dependence on outside forces, and so lowered the psychological barriers to scepticism. Third, the study of religion itself by science and history has suggested that it, too, can be understood without assuming the reality of God. One important result of these influences is the secularization of moral and social thinking, even among those who consider themselves to be religious.

In Huxley's time, the atheist or agnostic was probably someone brought up as a Christian who would retain a deep interest in religion even after rejecting it. This is less commonly true today, and religious thinkers have now to speak to a world where doubt and denial are combined with widespread indifference. One academic expression of this is the philosophical position popularly known as positivism, which argues that claims about God are not merely beyond knowledge, but cannot even be stated clearly.

In Canada the decline of religion may have been held back by the thinness of population and by ethnic loyalties; but while religion remains a potent force, scepticism is a widespread view. The leading agnostic thinker in Canada is Kai Nielsen, who can be described as a neopositivist. While such philosophers as Hugo Meynell and Donald Evans represent a North American theistic revival that has tried to conquer atheist and agnostic influences, the latter are still academically much stronger. In the most recent census on religion, Statistics Canada recorded almost 4.8 million Canadians describe themselves has having no religion.

See also Philosophy.


Further Reading

  • J.C.A. Gaskin, ed, Varieties of Unbelief: From Empiricus to Sartre (1989); H.A. Meynall, ed, Religion and Irreligion (1985); Kai Neilsen, God, Skepticism and Modernity (1989) and Ethics Without God (1989).

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