“Truth,” the late philosopher Richard Rorty explained, “is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” It has been observed that his contemporaries did not, as a general proposition, let him get away with that understanding of truth.
This comment came to mind not just because Rorty passed away last Friday, but because of the spat going on over agnosticism and atheism. John Wilkins quoted Bertrand Russell saying that “An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.” An atheist, on the other hand “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.”
This is not correct. There are many people who have decided not to believe in Gods and they live their lives as if there were no Gods. However, they do not maintain that the nonexistence of Gods is known for certain. They believe that that it’s impossible to prove a negative. These people call themselves atheists
There is a worthwhile distinction to be drawn here between personal knowledge that people have and the sort of societal consensus that Rorty equated with truth, especially in light of the shift Moran makes from the active voice (“they live their lives as if?” to “nonexistence of Gods is known?”). It can be simultaneously true that they know that gods do not exist, and that it is not yet a generally agreed upon truth. When you talk with theists about their beliefs, some will freely acknowledge that God’s existence is unprovable, but will still state that they know God exists. That is knowledge, but not scientific knowledge. It is a sort of knowledge that is not provable nor falsifiable. They would regard it as a revealed truth, and one more fundamental than details of scientific knowledge.
Agnostics would argue that not only is the existence of the deity unprovable, but that they personally have no form of knowledge about God’s existence. A lot of agnostics describe themselves as apathetic agnostics, to make the point that they don’t know and don’t care if God exists. Moral good exists, and we have some form of knowledge about that, even though that knowledge may not be subject to empirical scientific testing.
It is worth noting in passing that an apathetic agnostic cannot empirically demonstrate that it doesn’t matter whether God exists, nor that God’s existence is unknowable. There is no way even to gather data on a universe which includes a god to compare with one that lacks any such being. These beliefs are a form of knowledge distinct from scientific knowledge, as are beliefs in God’s existence, or beliefs in God’s non-existence. All three beliefs are forms of knowledge (gnosis).
Atheists like Richard Dawkins acknowledge that one cannot prove that God does not exist, but they do care whether God exists, and tend to act as if some sort of personal certitude on the topic is possible (whether or not they deny the possibility of such personal certitude). These sorts of atheists often explain their belief system in terms of some sort of scientism, which is to say, the belief that means that empirical scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge.
Larry Moran’s objections to Russell’s definition of atheism seem to center on this issue. As a matter of scientific knowledge, it is impossible to state that God does not exist. If you don’t see the evidence for God, you are not a theist. The best one could do is to create something like the continuum Richard Dawkins describes in terms of probabilities that God exists, where theists think the probability is high and atheists think it is low. The trouble with Dawkins’ treatment of that continuum is that he locates agnostics in the middle, as people who think that it’s a toss-up. But believing that there is a 50% chance that God exists is different from believing that God’s existence or non-existence is unknowable. That subjective probability is itself a form of knowledge about God’s existence, and agnostics reject the possibility of possessing exactly that sort of knowledge.
Russell’s definition is valid, an atheist is someone who possesses some sort of knowledge about God: the belief that God doesn’t exist. That knowledge may not be empirical, but other sorts of knowledge exist. It is probably worth distinguishing atheism from something like non-theism, a category that would include religions like Taoism as well as agnostics, atheists and people who simply have no opinion on the subject. Atheists have an opinion, and shouldn’t be ashamed of saying so.
Richard Rorty said, “To say that we should drop the idea of truth as out there waiting to be discovered is not to say that we have discovered that, out there, there is no truth.” This is a cheery sort of truth-agnosticism, which he deployed to explain where he differed from those who asserted that truth did not exist in any objective form.