Skip main navigation

Atheism and agnositicism

Read about definitions of ‘atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ and why humanists might doubt the existence of any deity.

We have already learned last week that a humanist understanding of human beings is that we, like every living thing, evolved. Humanists take the scientific evidence seriously. The absence of any persuasive evidence for an afterlife or for the existence of any kind of spirit or soul means humanists will also argue that this is the only life we can know we have. We will explore further next week some of the consequences of our mortality on a humanist approach to life.

In this step we will address some of the reasons behind why humanists might not believe in any god or gods. A humanist will generally describe themselves as an atheist, an agnostic, or both.

Definitions of atheism and agnosticism

There are different definitions of the words ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’.

The word ‘agnostic’ comes from the ancient Greek word ágnōstos, meaning ‘without knowledge’. It can be used to mean someone who sees no evidence to help them decide one way or the other. However, agnosticism can also have a stronger meaning (the original meaning of the word): being someone who claims it is simply impossible to know whether there is a god or not.

The word ‘atheist’ comes from the ancient Greek word átheos, meaning ‘without god(s)’. It means the absence of belief in a god or gods, or living your life as though there were no gods.

Many theists claim they are certain that a god exists. Some say that atheism defines the opposite, someone who is certain that there are no gods. They state that atheism is, therefore, just as fundamental or ‘faith-based’ a position as theism. However, it is perhaps better to think about a person’s belief as lying on a scale between the two extremes. Some atheists may indeed claim certainty. However, many will accept that this is not possible – they don’t lie at the very extreme end of the scale. They will accept that they can’t prove there is no god, but they believe the responsibility should rest on the believer to provide good reasons or evidence that something exists, not on the non-believer to prove it doesn’t. It is impossible to prove that something does not exist. The absence of conclusive proof either way does not force one to remain neutral or hedge one’s bets. The question is not whether, given the evidence, the existence of a god is impossible, but whether it is improbable. Many feel the evidence (or absence of it) actually makes it highly unlikely that a god or gods exists.

Humanists may hold different strengths of conviction in their disbelief. Few will claim absolute certainty. A humanist does not have to deny the existence of a god or gods. However, they won’t sign up to a belief in a god or gods and will typically live their lives as though there were no gods, rather than as though there might be one.

Reasons to doubt

It is the humanist approach to knowledge we have learned about this week that give many humanists their reasons to doubt the existence of any deity.

There have been many arguments over the centuries made by philosophers and theologians in attempts to support the claims for the existence of a god (see the further reading for more information). However, none has succeeded in providing an incontestable rational argument.

Humanists are sceptical of claims made on the basis of faith alone, of the reliability of revelation, and of blind trust of authority. They see no empirical evidence for the existence of a god or gods, and our scientific understanding of the world leaves an ever-reducing space for the need for a god or gods to explain the way the world works. That does not disprove their existence, but applying Ockham’s razor means many humanists will feel an understanding of reality in which they are absent provides a more economical and rational worldview.

What there is good evidence for is an enormous amount of pain and suffering in the world. This problem of evil provides for many humanists a good justification for doubting the existence of a benevolent (all-good), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omniscient (all-knowing) god. If it knows suffering exists, can prevent it, and is good, then why does it let it happen? Religious believers have attempted to come up with answers to the problem. However, for many humanists, the problem is most simply solved by assuming there is no god. They believe the evidence makes the existence of a benevolent god appear extremely unlikely.

There is far more to the debate than we have mentioned here, and many humanists will accept the discussion has not been concluded. However, they can feel confident that they at least have good reasons not to believe in the existence of any god or gods.

Question: Do you think humanists have good, rational arguments for not believing in a god or gods?

This article is from the free online

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now