Philosophy of Religion 101 - The Basic Positions

  • Delivis

    Posts: 2332

    Jun 17, 2010 8:30 AM GMT
    Philosophy of Religion 101 - The Basic Positions

    As anyone who frequents these forums knows that the topic of religion and belief in god generally comes up frequently, perhaps more frequently than any other topic. In these discussions people tend to use a plethora of different definitions of a god, different senses of what atheism or agnosticism mean, different senses of the word religion, and so on. Few people lay out their definitions or their reasoning in a way that gives the argument any foundation and common ground and thus most of these discussions involve people mostly talking past one another. That said, here is my attempt to go over all of the basic positions one can take in this argument.

    Before We Begin

    One or two preliminary points before I delve into the nitty gritty. There are a few things to say at the outset and a few things one should keep in mind when reading through this.

    Firstly I won't be getting into what is meant by a god or gods. That is a topic I'll delve into in a later post. You can define a god as a prime mover with the classical monotheistic properties or you can define god as your teapot if you like. Feel free to plug in whatever definition of a god you like behind any terms that refer to one.

    Secondly, any term or position that refers to one god can also refer to multiple gods. Wherever god is used in the singular, it can equally be apply in the plural.

    Thirdly, keep in mind that many of the terms used here have multiple colloquial definitions. If you have always used a particular word in a different sense that's fine. You can define any word however you like and your definitions don't have to match the ones typically used in academia. As long as you are clear and precise in what you mean, all is well.

    Belief in God(s) - Theism and Atheism

    What is meant by a belief is a representation of the world you take to be true. If you believe in the holocaust then you believe the holocaust was a real historical event that took place. There is another common and colloquial sense of the word belief which is completely alien to philosophical discussions. When someone says they believe in monogamy they are not saying they think monogamy is a real practice, they are saying they think it is a good practice, or something they themselves practice. Likewise, when someone says "I believe in you" they are not confirming their belief in your existence. But that is the sense of the word belief we are using here. To say you believe in a god is to say you believe that it is objectively true that a god exists.

    If faced with the question "do you believe in a god?" and you answer yes, you are a theist. Everyone else is an atheist. A theist is someone with belief in at least one god. The prefix "a" simply means without. To be an atheist is simply to be without belief in a god. There are many misconceptions about what atheism is or means, most of which I'll cover in the next section

    You either believe in a god or you do not. There is no middle ground. Everyone fits into one of these two positions. There is this popular conception of an "I don't know" position that often gets called agnosticism. Whatever one calls this position it is of course perfectly fine to say one doesn't know and is just undecided but that is not a middle position. Someone who has not yet decided if they should believe in god clearly does not believe in god, he or she is without belief in god. Just as anyone who has never heard of the concept of a god before, who has not even have the chance to make up their mind on the subject, is without belief in god. Agnosticism is a real position, but it is not mutually exclusive with the categories of theism and atheism. That will be our next topic after I clear up a common misunderstanding or two about atheism.

    Misunderstanding Atheism

    Remember, atheism just means "without belief in god". Not many words purely refer to the absence of something and so this tends to leas to some confusion. You hear theists claiming that both belief in god and atheism take a leap of faith or that both in some way are irrational positions; this is nonsense.

    Atheism makes no claims of it's own whatsoever. It is not the belief that there are no gods, merely the lack of a belief in a god or gods. Notice the difference between those statements. One makes a positive claim, one is purely a negative.

    If someone claims that they believe or know that a god exists, they are making a positive claim. The rejection of this claim does not necessitate making the opposite claim, namely that no gods exist. Likewise, someone can claim that nowhere in existence is there a god. This is a positive claim as well. One can reject this claim as well without claiming the opposite, namely that at least one god does exist. You can, in fact, reject both claims simultaneously.

    One can be an atheist and go further to make the positive claim that no gods exist, but it is not required to fall into the category of atheism. A useful analogy is the courtroom. You do not vote guilty or innocent. You vote guilty or not guilty. The burden of proof is on guilt. If the burden of proof for guilt is not met, then the defendant is deemed not guilty. But some of the jurors may not only believe that he is not guilty (a negative), they may go so far as to believe he is actually innocent (a positive claim). The jurors who claim this are still in the not guilty camp. Innocent in this analogy is the belief that there are no gods and not guilty is the absence of a belief in a god, or the rejection of theistic claims.

    Knowledge of God(s) - Gnosticism and Agnosticism


    Some claim not only to believe in a god but to know that a god exists. Others claim that they do not or maybe even can not know if a god exists, but they believe anyway. So we need to parse out this distinction.

    What knowledge is and how it differs from belief is what I will cover in the last section of this post. All we need to establish from now is that knowledge is a subset of belief, it is a special kind of belief. So everything you know, you also believe. But not everything you believe, you know.

    Whether you believe in a god or not, you can claim to either have knowledge of your position or not. An agnostic theist, for instance, is someone who believes in a god but does not claim to know that god exists. A gnostic theist believes in a god and claims to know that the god exists. Likewise you can be an agnostic atheist or a gnostic atheist.

    You may also notice that you can have two different kinds of agnosticism, depending on temporal contingencies of knowledge. You can say that you believe in god but do not know god (not now, or not yet). You can say you believe in god but that god is unknowable (forever, in principle). You may believe that whatever is needed to turn the mere belief in god into knowledge is out there already, for those who seek it out, or that it will one day be available or even given to us through some means (perhaps personal revelation). Or you may believe that the belief in god falls into a special category of beliefs that could never be known, a kind of belief one can only ever believe in.

    Those two different kinds of agnosticism are sometimes referred to as weak and strong. Weak agnosticism meaning you do not know if god exists but knowledge of god may be possible. Strong agnosticism meaning god is unknowable.
  • Delivis

    Posts: 2332

    Jun 17, 2010 8:31 AM GMT
    Belief vs. Knowledge

    What exactly then is the difference between belief and knowledge? A belief, as I've already covered, is the position that a statement is a true representation of the world. To believe that Australia exists is to think it is objectively true that Australia exists. Ditto for any god. I've also said that knowledge is a subset of belief, it is a kind of belief. So what does it add to the belief that Australia exists when we claim to also know it?

    Part of me is temped to end this already-too-long post with an introductory lesson in epistemology, but I think it is best to leave that to another post. Suffice to say that in all definitions, knowledge is a special kind of belief, one which either comes with higher level of certainty (if not absolute certainty/proof) or some kind of justification. I'll end this section by simply saying that we should be clear with our criteria of knowledge. If you claim to know that a god exists then compare this claim to other claims of knowledge that you hold and see if they are comparable.
  • seven_deadly_...

    Posts: 104

    Jun 17, 2010 7:34 PM GMT
    Hi Delivis - thanks for a great and informative read. I'll eagerly await your post about epistemology. icon_biggrin.gif
  • Delivis

    Posts: 2332

    Jun 19, 2010 5:30 AM GMT
    seven_deadly_monkeys saidHi Delivis - thanks for a great and informative read. I'll eagerly await your post about epistemology. icon_biggrin.gif


    Whenever i get stuck in a sleepless night next i'll write up another post..icon_smile.gif