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Austin Cline

Bertrand Russell on Agnosticism and Atheism

By September 15, 2006

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Are you an agnostic or an atheist? This is a question which faces many nonbelievers. Too often, this question is predicated upon a misunderstanding of both terms - many people imagine that agnostics sit on the fence about whether gods exist or not while atheists deny their existence.

In the December 2004 / January 2005 issue of Free Inquiry, Paul Edwards writes:

Russell wavered between calling himself an agnostic and describing himself as an atheist. He evidently did not attach too much importance to this distinction, but he made it clear that if he was to be classified as an agnostic, it would have to be in a sense in which an agnostic and an atheist are "for practical purposes, at one."

In the television interview mentioned earlier, the interviewer asked Russell, "Do you think it is certain that there is no such thing as God or simply that it is just not proven?" "No," Russell answered, "I don't think it is certain there is no such thing ó I think it is on exactly the same level as the Olympic gods, or the Norwegian gods; they also may exist, the gods of Olympus and Valhalla. I can't prove they don't, but I think that the Christian God has no more likelihood than they had. I think they are a bare possibility."

He explained his views more fully in an interview published in Look magazine in 1953. An agnostic, in any sense in which he can be regarded as one, Russell said, "may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice."

Russell's position here is probably shared by most atheists. They don't believe in the existence of any gods and, insofar as they allow for the remote possibility that some sort of god exists, it's about as strong of a possibility as the existence of the ancient Greek or Norse gods. The existence of such gods doesn't appear to be logically impossible, but it also doesn't appear to be empirically likely, either. Lots of things are possible but not plausible or likely.

The atheistic position is difficult for many people to accept ó they are convinced that their god exists, but they are no more or less convinced of this than people used to be convinced of the existence of Greek and Norse gods. Theists today would probably regard belief in those gods as absurd, but why is it any more absurd than their own beliefs? Frankly, it's not ó their beliefs are more common right now, but that doesn't make them more rational or justified.

 

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Comments
March 4, 2007 at 2:48 pm
(1) Rachael says:

Bertrand Russell made a comment about “if a voice came from the sky and said what is going to happen to him in the next 24 hours then maybe he will start to believe.” God might not come to you telling you everything that happens the next 24 hours, but there is a book call the “Holy Bible” in the book of revelation it says all events that are going to happen in the future. By these events God is letting us know that his coming will be soon. So if that is not God saying all that stuff then why are all the events happening that are in the Bible? And with hearing a voice from the sky…God speaking to you may not come from the sky or him appearing in the same room as you saying Hey your going to do this in the next 24 hours, but God will use other people to prophesy. There have been times when God will tell someone something about someone else and that person will help the other people go through it. Or someone will tell someone that something is going to happen before the other person knows it will. Right there is God talking to people telling them things.

March 4, 2007 at 3:21 pm
(2) Austin Cline says:

there is a book call the “Holy Bible” in the book of revelation it says all events that are going to happen in the future.

Please support this claim.

So if that is not God saying all that stuff then why are all the events happening that are in the Bible?

I haven’t seen any such things happening.

but God will use other people to prophesy.

Can you prove this?

May 15, 2009 at 10:51 am
(3) Ed says:

None of the events that are described in the Book of Revelations are coming true.

August 9, 2010 at 3:15 am
(4) Jon says:

perhaps u need to read the Bible with an open mind, to see that all things mentioned in Revelations are indeed coming to pass. strange diseases, natural calamities, etc, it’s simply how u look at it. funny that all this was known to readers of the Bible before events actually took place. funny again, that u don’t really know what u’re talking about when u say, prove this and substantiate that. none so blind as those who will not see or hear. in the end, it’s your loss folks, no offence meant

August 13, 2010 at 3:17 pm
(5) George says:

So Jon, if everything in Revelations is coming to pass how come the part about the stars falling to earth and turning into some kind of beings hasn’t happened yet? I know you folks are still fixated on the upside down bowl theory of the sky but you know we’ve learned a lot since the bronze age.

August 13, 2010 at 4:53 pm
(6) Bob says:

I see the question of a god in two parts. The first is the scientific approach of an hypothesis that there is a great intelligence behind the universe among other hypotheses. The second is the personal god of the bible who makes demands of us. I accept the possibility of the first but not of the second. The second god has come from people’s experience of life and it’s interpretation usually guided by ignorance.

As for which pigeonhole I fit in I am in reality half way between atheist and agnostic. I don’t believe in a god because I don’t see any hard and fast evidence of one. At the same time I can’t prove there isn’t one. For that reason I don’t really like being pigeonholed at all.

August 13, 2010 at 5:09 pm
(7) Austin Cline says:

As for which pigeonhole I fit in I am in reality half way between atheist and agnostic.

Atheism and agnosticism aren’t mutually exclusive points on the same line; they are, instead, separate answers to different questions.

I donít believe in a god because I donít see any hard and fast evidence of one.

That’s atheism (the conclusion is atheism – believing in any gods; reasons why vary from atheist to atheist).

August 15, 2010 at 10:41 pm
(8) frankjg says:

I believe that the gods or God exist only in the minds of people. I believe that they are IMAGINARY. I believe that they are not real. And when people say they talk to their imaginary friends, I don’t say you’re crazy. I just say , ya sure.

I am atheist or probably agnostic ?

August 16, 2010 at 10:39 am
(9) Todd says:

Frankjg,

Here’s the test:

Do you believe god(s) exist(s)? If no, you are atheist.

Do you (claim to) know god(s) exist(s)? If no, you are agnostic.

Most people who are one are also the other.

Sounds like you are both. You are likely also an “explicit atheist” or “strong atheist”.

August 25, 2010 at 9:21 am
(10) Gwaithmir says:

Jon said: “perhaps u need to read the Bible with an open mind, to see that all things mentioned in Revelations are indeed coming to pass. strange diseases, natural calamities, etc, itís simply how u look at it.”

>Please show us even one period in human history devoid of strange diseases and natural calamities. Such things have taken place even before humans had the ability to record them.

>For your information, I have read the bible (several versions) with an open mind many times. It reveals a god with the morals of Hitler, bad theology, bogus prophecies, and tales no more believable than one would find in a supermarket tabloid. If it hadn’t been for the bible I wouldn’t be an atheist today.

March 29, 2013 at 2:00 pm
(11) Chris says:

This descreption of Russell’s stance is the very description of atheists who are fully aware of philosophical agnosticism and they confuse it with baing agnostic, hence they think they are both and that the difference is irrelevant. I keep finding it preposterous (if not arrogant) when atheists claim to be agnostic and they are actually arguing against existence, even if they grant that “you can’t actually know”. That’s not what I call lack of belief. Further, the question makes sense only in relation to things which are empirically impossible to probe; the Pagan gods are not so, because they are described as physical manifestations. The Abrahamic tradition is an incorporeal concept and thus the question does fully apply to it.

Being agnostic does not mean sitting on the fence nor anything about likelihood, plausibility or what.

Being agnostic has a lot more to do with not giving a damn.

March 29, 2013 at 3:07 pm
(12) Austin Cline says:

I keep finding it preposterous (if not arrogant) when atheists claim to be agnostic and they are actually arguing against existence

Arguing against a particular god, whether it’s making the strong argument that it can’t exist or a weaker argument that it probably doesn’t exist, isn’t the least bit inconsistent with being agnostic generally.

That’s not what I call lack of belief.

That’s because you’re mixing up a general stance towards gods overall and a particular stance towards some specific god or type of god.

Being agnostic simply means denying that you do or can know if any god or gods exist. It doesn’t mean that you don’t also deny that some particular god (like Zeus or Odin) exists.

Being agnostic has a lot more to do with not giving a damn.

In fact, being agnostic has nothing whatsoever to do with that.

Whether you care or not is a completely separate question. You can not know and care a lot about the question. You can not know and also not care at all.

April 5, 2013 at 2:32 pm
(13) mary says:

Maybe someone can tell me if I am agnostic or atheist. Even as a child I called the Sunday school stories “god’s fairey tales”. Through the years I sincerely tried to find religion with no success. I taught Sunday school in both protestant and the catholic church, wrote for a catholic newspaper, churched my children, did everything proper. I was really good at it. Finally I told a close priest friend I mine I was through, quit everything overnite, and found wonderful psylogical peace. BTW, Wally, the priest, also admitted he did not believe. When I asked him why he didn’t quit he asked me: “What other vocation do I have?” Last I heard he was on his way up the papal ladder in Rome. Go figure?

Basically I believe that the power that runs the universe is god (for lack of a better word) and as part of the universe we are part of this power and so we are also as a god would be. I believe people need a ruling god to address their insecurities and doubts.
We owe it to our little blue orb called earth to cherish and care for it. There is no so-called human like god. The god word is a yet totally unknown source of power that fuels the universe and beyond.

I find I am pretty much alone in this at my age. Most people, in their 70′s like me are clammoring to make peace with their maker before they die so they can go to heaven. To me heaven sounds boring. If there is any after life I’d like to spend it with the likes of Carl Sagan or Einstein travelling the universe and finding answers. I readily admit I do not believe and get everything from an angry reaction to sympathy. They just can’t get it into their heads that are merely a speck of energy from stardust and shall return to that state.

April 9, 2013 at 3:59 am
(14) Austin Cline says:

Maybe someone can tell me if I am agnostic or atheist.

The two are not mutually exclusive. You can be both.

Basically I believe that the power that runs the universe is god

Then you are a theist.

If you don’t claim to know for sure that such a power exists, then you are an agnostic. If you are sure it exists and think you know it to be true, then you aren’t an agnostic.

April 6, 2013 at 1:34 pm
(15) John Thomson says:

#1) Rachel, Do you believe everyone that says God told me what’s going to happen in the future? Do you believe the people with other preposterous ideas as well? Revelation was written by a mad man in a drug induced state.

#4) People like you make worry for the future. Revelation predicts ordinary things. I can do it too. There will be hurricanes, tornadoes and Earthquakes this year. When it predicts outlandish things it is always wrong. None of those have ever happened nor will they.

#6) A descriptive phrase isn’t a pigeonhole. As Austin points out there is no half way point no matter the definition of God.Do you believe or not? Atheist/theist. Do you know or not if there’s a god? Agnostic. You are the very definition of an agnostic atheist. In my video dictionary I could use your picture.

#8) Ditto You too are an agnostic atheist.

#11) I find it preposterous and arrogant that you seem to think you know more about my thoughts and beliefs than I know myself. Stupidly so., on your part. I can honestly state that I neither know nor believe in any gods. In what possible way does being agnostic and atheist deny existence? That makes no sense whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if your definition of God is corporeal or incorporeal. The questions remain – do you believe in any gods and do you claim to know if they exist. Not giving a damn is just your particular attitude about being agnostic. Being agnostic does mean sitting on the fence. How do those splinters feel? Are you butt hurt?

April 13, 2013 at 9:40 pm
(16) mary says:

Austin,
I do not firmly believe the universe is “god” (again, for lack of a better name). That answer cannot be found until the science/physics community finds definate answers. I doubt that will happen in my lifetime. So I shall claim to be agnostic.
Thank you Austin.

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