Is atheism or agnosticism more rational?



While there is still widespread disagreement regarding the existing definition of atheism, it is normally considered as the "Rejection of belief in the existence of deities".

One accepted definition of agnosticism is: "[it] is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist." - Rowe, William L.

So essentially it seems like agnostics are more open minded than atheists and accept their inability to prove or disprove that God exists. Atheists say that God doesn't exist. But I've never heard an atheist say he can prove that God doesn't exist. One of many reasons they give for this can relate to "Why should I prove the non-existence of something entirely made up? It's already made up, then what's there to prove in its non-existence?"

Which means that atheists (or at least the majority of them) are realists. Because [assumption] most people won't think about reality at quantum and/or cosmic scale while defining it (Subjective reality - if I'm not mistaken). But science proves that reality is not subjective, it exists independent of one's power of observation. In that sense, can agnosticism be considered more rational (based on or in accordance with reason or logic) than atheism?


Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 179

10Consider that agnosticism, as you've defined it, is a positive claim about the impossibility of reason to determine God's existence. It is qualitatively no different from gnostic atheism or theism: one is making an assertion which requires rational grounds for justification. By your definition, do you think this permits one to declare agnosticism any more rational than atheism? Soft agnosticism, the claim that one simply does not know and leaving open as possible that one may know, on the other hand... – commando – 2015-03-21T23:44:38.713

3Most important word to define in your question : 'God' – None – 2015-03-23T16:00:05.493


@Budhijeevi But science proves that reality is not subjective,.. -- Are you certain that your following statement was published or proclaimed by at least one scientific body and got positive peer reviews, not to mention the results been reproduced widely? It seems to me a very bold claim. After accounting how scientific community progresses, not to mention this brilliant piece, I would like to have citations here.

– Firelord – 2015-03-29T17:17:17.633

I find the statement 'more rational' dubious. A statement / proposition is either rational or it is not. – Neil Meyer – 2015-04-12T09:12:09.607

It look like a good question, but as I said here, some atheists, even some atheists hold *the very-thing-itself-in-turn-God* can not be reached so that they say knowing properties of *the very-thing-itself-in-turn-God* is enough. I think you are a bit too much pushing on or toward "proof". Personally, if one can not know something, then I think we better keep quiet about it.

– None – 2015-05-12T14:39:29.220

Are there only Christian agnostics? Anyway, good idea to define "rational". An answer very much depends on it, so much so that I think that when or if you have that definition, you also have your answer. – Cheers and hth. - Alf – 2015-05-12T23:30:03.980

So many arguments give some special status to the concept 'God'. The atheist/agnostic argument is pointless when arguing about the existence of unicorns; why do we waste so much time debating the specific nature of disbelief of one specific unprovable concept, in a sea of an infinite number of unprovable concepts? – Ask About Monica – 2016-09-07T16:41:11.040



If one is both attentive to empirical scientific studies and to philosophical investigations of the limits of knowledge, then the only rational position is philosophical agnosticism plus pragmatic atheism.

One should be agnostic because one must be agnostic about everything: there simply is no (non-controversial) known path to get completely certain knowledge of any empirical matter (save possibly for the famous "cogito ergo sum", but that's not very useful here).

But the track record of all detailed predictions for every major religion are astoundingly bad (about what you'd expect from observant farmers 3000 years ago wondering about the universe), so there is essentially no evidence in favor and very much evidence against hypotheses that any historical religion is actually meaningfully divinely inspired (including all the bits about afterlife if any, how many gods there are, whether they pay any attention to humans, etc.). Thus, the parsimonious explanation for these religions is not divine intervention but various social and other factors, and it is therefore unlikely that any particular claim is true.

Whether or not this leaves room for some manner of divine being, all the details of what people claim about it/them are probably wrong, so the rational thing to do is to act and reason the same way you would if there wasn't any divine being, hence pragmatic atheism.

That's where informed rationality, applied consistently, takes you, at least if you forbid self-deception and wishful thinking. Whether you call this "agnosticism" or "atheism" seems to me at least to be too subjective a call for one to be clearly the rational choice of title.

(There may be rational reasons for self-deception, e.g. to fit better into a community, or to work around intractable irrational aspects of one's emotional outlook (paralyzing fear of death, for instance).)

(There may also be rational reasons to not bother informing yourself on what is known, e.g. there's more pressing stuff to do.)

Rex Kerr

Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 15 388


(1) "philosophical investigations of the limits of knowledge"—Would you include some citations? (2) "parsimonious explanation"—are you employing the methodological version of Ockham's razor (well-validated), or the ontological version of Ockham's razor (unsupported, to my knowledge)? (3) "That's where informed rationality, applied consistently, takes you, at least if you forbid self-deception and wishful thinking."—Gregory W. Dawes would quibble with this, in Theism and Explanation.

– labreuer – 2015-03-23T05:34:15.673

1@labreuer - I think the S.E.P. entry on certainty covers the ground well enough for (1). In (2), methodological version (since we're being pragmatic here). (3): he might, but I don't have the book so I'm not sure what his arguments are. – Rex Kerr – 2015-03-23T08:57:48.857

1Ok; I just don't see how "the only rational position is philosophical agnosticism plus pragmatic atheism." That is an extremely strong philosophical position to take, with many objections in existence which you utterly ignore. Human life isn't 100% about making "detailed predictions"; indeed much of it is about growth, which can mean bringing into existence of new patterns, not merely discovering what is already there. Furthermore, let's note that the human sciences are much worse at "detailed predictions" than the hard sciences, and religion is much more complex than the human sciences. – labreuer – 2015-03-23T14:16:33.603

1@labreuer - It is very strong, and I consider it a rather profound result. It's certainly not obvious to a casual observer. And I'm not claiming that it's certainly the correct position, only that the evidence for it is good enough that acting otherwise is irrational (e.g. it's irrational to act as if it's going to rain tomorrow when you live in a desert and have no other knowledge of present weather patterns). The agnosticism is hard to get out of because lack of certainty anywhere in your reasoning will sink a stronger stance, and I summarized why atheism is pragmatic. – Rex Kerr – 2015-03-23T18:35:22.827

1@labreuer - Oh, and I'm not faulting religion as a human endeavor for getting detailed predictions wrong. Detailed predictions are really hard! That's why they're one of the few things that speak strongly to whether the content of religion is of human origin or has divine origin. There are all sorts of things that could provide support to religion (e.g. direct repeated manifestation of a deity, physical world being responsive to the desires of those of the faithful who are in great need, etc.), but we don't see such things, so pragmatically we ought to take Russel's teapot to heart. – Rex Kerr – 2015-03-23T18:43:22.683

What you're advocating smells like pure skepticism. – None – 2016-01-09T04:08:05.350

@BenPiper - Can you expand a little on what you mean by "pure skepticism" and what is wrong with it (if you think something is wrong with it)? – Rex Kerr – 2016-01-10T00:45:37.517


Expanding on commando's point, Agnosticism is the belief that we can never know about the existence of God. In essence thus, agnosticism is an epistimological position outlining the limits of human knowledge, and thus makes positive statements. Compare this to being simply irreligious, in which case not only does one not know whether god exists, but also doesn't know whether he or she can determine whether god exists! Being simply irreligious is more open minded than being an agnostic or an athiest. In essence, both athiesm and agnostics make claims about the belief in god. Whether the claims are equally rational is an opionated question.

Note: Kant was both an agnostic and a christian, believing that there is no way to prove god's existence but that one had to accept the existence of god. So agnosticism is quite different from irreligious or athiestic.


Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407


I don't understand how you concluded that a merely irreligious person would be more open minded than an atheist. The way you contrast atheism against simply being irreligious, you seem to imply that the irreligious person here is not an atheist. But by definition, a person who isn't an atheist is a person who has belief in some kind of god. And while it's of course possible to believe in gods for non-religious reasons, this lost always isn't the case. – David H – 2015-03-22T04:40:44.263

2@DavidH There is a substantial muddling of terms which occurs in any discussion of this subject. Here Andy seems to be using my preferred definition of "atheist" as someone with explicit disbelief in a god. Then, to not be an atheist is not to have any belief in god(s), but rather not to profess certainty in the non-existence of any god(s). This leaves open as possibilities both theism and total agnosticism. Ideally any discourse here would begin with a clear definition of terminology. – commando – 2015-03-22T04:59:05.050


You can't say one is 'more rational' than another, they are different ways of rationalization.

We could say agnosticism is more 'conservative'*, and they have reason in saying atheists can't prove God doesn't exist.

Although, atheist are more 'practicals', and they are also correct to say that agnosticists can't use this kind of logic to everything.

When we say two things have same size/color/weight we are always using approximations made by common sense. If you analyze its atoms you may find differences, but someone might say you are crazy exaggerating.

Atheists 'round' results, using a certain precision they use the 'approximate' result, like scients analizing experiments/equations in real world. Can you prove that all the world history that is told to us really happened? Can you even be sure all these said 'countries' exist? And how about dragons?

So instead of saying dragons, Russell's teapot and God might exist, they say none of them do.

*actually the word I was looking for is the translation of the portuguese word "preciosista"[someone who worries about minor (irrelevant?) details], if someone could edit with the appropriate translation...


Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 121

Indeed, preciosista is the word, and I do not think it can be translated into English through a single word. – Luís Henrique – 2016-09-04T17:26:50.613


Atheists say that God doesn't exist. But I've never heard an atheist say he can prove that God doesn't exist.

Well, I am going to say it, and I am going to say it, now.

"God" is defined as an omnipotent and omnibenevolent entity that created the world. The world is full of violence and cruelty. Ergo, if any entity actually created the world, it is either not omnibenevolent (it doesn't care that its creatures kill and torture each others routinely, out of necessity rather than out of caprice) or not omnipotent (it could not create a world where cruelty and violence were not necessary). If so, any entity that eventually created the world is not God, for it would lack at least one of the two other properties that define God. If there is any entity that is either omnibenevolent or omnipotent, then it is also not God, because it did not create the world. Ergo, God, as defined by theists, does not exist.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

I cannot prove that Tash didn't create the world, if for no other reason, because the world is quite Tash-like in style, as much as Kleine Nachtmusik is very Mozart-like.

But Tash is not what theists would call God; the moment when anyone starts seriously arguing that we should worship or appease Tash, I will be concerned with refuting Tash's existence. As of now, it does not seem necessary.

I also cannot prove that a clockmaker god didn't create the world. But again this is not what theists would call God, nor the reason why they would burn me at the stake while I am alive or tell me I am going to hell when I die. People who believe in a clockmaker god - deists - are perfectly comfortable with me not worshipping any god; their god doesn't require worship and is similarly quite comfortable with my lack of worship. And so again I see no point in refuting the existence of such god, except perhaps as a fun philosophical exercise.

Agnostics fall for theists' favourite fallacy, that of moving the goal posts. They confuse not being able to prove that Tash or the Great Clocksmith created the world with not being able to prove that the omnipotent/omnibenevolent theist God of the Bible/Quran created the world. That's the reason why I am not an agnostic, but an atheist: because atheism is by far a more rational position than agnosticism.

Luís Henrique

Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 1 311

2Who defines god as omnibenevolent? – Simon Dirmeier – 2016-09-04T19:19:11.397


Religion differs from philosophy in that it is dependent on revelation as opposed to reasoned argument. This is a first approximation; at a second approximation it becomes more subtle.

An argument derived from Epicurus is that religion provides comfort to those who have poor powers of reasoning; and that it is mostly superstition; still when one considers that Christians must examine their conscience to avoid eternal damnation this seems hardly comforting to the Athiests evaporation into nothingness; and when one looks at the internet one observes a great deal of scientific and mathematical mumbo-jumbo ie superstition.

One ought to observe that any form of rationality (and in here I include religion) must also have as a consequence superstition.

A second fallacy, is that people two millennia ago must be worse thinkers than we who are here now, we who in fact are the inheritors of all the knowledge that has been created.

Is it worth pointing out that already in Aristotles Metaphysics he was pondering the existence of the first mover; ie a God in rational terms? And when one considers this, one should recall he is still central to the Western philosophical project; if not only for the sharpness of his intellect, and it's width, but also because he argues as we do today; which seems surprisingly modern, until we realise that we argue as he does: not for nothing was his place of learning was called the Academy.

A third fallacy is that Athiests are more rational than theists. In fact one can prune down their arguments to a core set of beliefs. That is, in Descartes language, they clearly and distinctly perceive that there is no God; thus their statement

why should I prove the existence of something that doesn't exist

This is in fact a mirror image of the theists argument - why should prove the existence of something that I and many others also clearly and distinctly perceive.

In this sense, atheism is a religion; but also it is not as there is not any core rituals, or doctrine as such for it to cohere with; one could suppose, given sufficient time and development that this will or could become a distinct possibility; that until now there has been no significant atheism 'church' - if one discounts, as one should, Comtes Religion of Humanity, and the Brights.

But then again, there has never been a significant fraction of humanity without some form of theistic belief; that there is now, prominently in Western Europe; might suggest that in the future that a coherence into a religious type movement with a positive doctrine might be a distinct possibility.

Finally, one really ought to examine what one means by 'clear and distinct perception'; by what 'light'; and how is this not a 'revealing' and therefore, in a minor way, part of a ladder of 'revelation'.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 1


We might as well quote how Dawkins sets up a (Bayesian)probabilistic spectrum of belief from theism to atheism, and claims that most self reporting atheists do not claim to "know" there is no god (the strong atheist position below) but to think the probability of their being a god is extremely low (the de facto atheist position below).

Personally I doubt most self reporting atheists would know a Bayesian probability of one knocked them down in the street, and so the claim is in fact false. Though I suppose if Dawkins questioned about it as, Socrates did the slave boy on geometry, we would discover that they "recalled" Bayes' theorem and in fact they were a (6) in the probabilistic spectrum all along.

From the Wikipedia article on the Spectrum of Theistic Probability

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins posits that "the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other." He goes on to propose a continuous "spectrum of probabilities" between two extremes of opposite certainty, which can be represented by seven "milestones". Dawkins suggests definitive statements to summarize one's place along the spectrum of theistic probability. These "milestones" are:

(1) Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: "I do not believe, I know."

(2) De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. "I don't know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there."

(3) Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. "I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God."

(4) Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. "God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable."

(5) Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. "I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be skeptical."

(6) De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. "I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."

(7) Strong atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one."

Conrad Turner

Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 181

You should include one where you say that the probabilities are inconclusive and therefore does not believe in god. – CognisMantis – 2015-03-23T20:23:07.343

@CognisMantis No I should not; as its is not my classification scheme, it is that of Richard Dawkins quoted from the Wikipedia article. It is not my place to put words in his/their mouth/s (a disgusting habit, if you ask me). Also, if inconclusive why would one jump one way or the other, looks like (4) is an appropriate in such a case. – Conrad Turner – 2015-03-24T05:10:10.600

Because If you are unsure of the probabilities of the truth, then you would not be able to believe in the truth. Maybe a box of chocolate floats in space, maybe it doesn't. By not jumping one way or another, you admit that you do not believe. – CognisMantis – 2015-03-24T14:11:25.233

Sorry, but what are you talking about? You do not jump because you do not know. Do you have some agenda that includes purported knowledge of a/the "truth"? – Conrad Turner – 2015-03-24T14:16:30.720

I have no agenda. I define belief as thinking that something is true, or at least likely true. If you don't know something is true, then how can you say you believe it is true. If you can't say it is true then you don't believe it. I roll a dice and ask you if you believe it will roll 1,2 or 3. Notice that you will say I don't know or something of that sort, but you cannot believe that it is true that I will roll a 1,2, or 3. That is how being inconclusive about something also means that you don't believe in something, yet. Anyways, that is how I think of it. It's kind of trivial. – CognisMantis – 2015-03-24T14:34:49.290

1Well, all I can say is I do not understand this conversation. No one has been arguing that one believes something when the probabilities are balanced. This is the condition for not making a choice, – Conrad Turner – 2015-03-24T14:57:56.870

That was just an example. Pretty much, I am arguing that most agnostics can be considered atheists. – CognisMantis – 2015-03-24T15:17:13.853


Wittgenstein once wrote: Perhaps what is more important than what I have said is what I have not. This is not an answer to what you did ask, but a challenge based on what you did not explicitly state.

When you ask which belief is 'more' rational, this implies a belief in an objective truth. Is there such a thing? Protagoras argued for relativism by illustrating that truth is based on interpretation: Man is the measure of all things. I would suggest that you take the next step and take a look at Nietzche's death of god. After that, I suggest Heidegger and Sartre.

Others have already talked about the meaning of agnostic and so I won't step on any toes.

Also, science proves nothing...ever. The scientific method is based on induction, which can be very wrong.


Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 124

Also, science proves nothing...ever. +1 for this. – Luís Henrique – 2016-09-04T17:45:22.703


I want to divide the idea of rationality.

It could be (a) that atheism is more rational, on a belief system based on sentential logic, first-order logic, modal logic, the (or 'a') logic of conditionals, and the current body of mainstream science. Yet (b) since all believers are subject to bounded rationality, it might be more rational, on the evidence available to S at time t, to endorse agnosticism at time t. Or vice versa. Rationality in sense (b) has to be indexed to the evidence available to a person at a time.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 34 276


I don't consider Agnosticism a very useful approach, although I wouldn't quality it as irrational.

I would argue that the only approach that is both knowledgeable and rational is to consider both Atheism and Animistic Pantheism as equally valid descriptions of reality, and different from one another only at the superficial level of semantics.

I would also argue that any concepts of divinity that are not Animistic are fundamentally flawed.

I elaborate on this in my article The Atheistic approach to God… or how to bridge the gap between Atheists and Theists

John Slegers

Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 944

3This does not seem well-related to the question which is about whether atheism or agnosticism is more rational. Instead, it's a series of claims about how you view pantheism, animism, and atheism to be roughly the same thing. – virmaior – 2015-05-11T23:32:32.637

@virmaior : My position is that Atheism and Animistic Pantheism are equivalent and both rational approaches to gaining an understanding of objective reality. I don't consider Agnosticism a very useful approach, although I wouldn't quality it as irrational. As that might not be clear from my original answer, I just added this. – John Slegers – 2015-05-12T10:00:10.937

1Adding an answer to the question is an improvement ... but if the other part isn't an answer, then what is it doing in your answer? – virmaior – 2015-05-12T11:45:49.957

@virmaior : It explains why Atheism and Animistic Pantheism are equivalent; why the distinction is purely semantic. IMO, this information is quite essential to understand my position. – John Slegers – 2015-05-12T11:59:38.040


The first question to address in this answer is "what is the appropriate standard of rationality?" The agnostic's argument implicitly assumes that justification (proving an idea true or probably true) is the standard of rationality. If the agnostic was right about that, then it would be irrational to be an atheist since you can't show that the non-existence of God is true or probably true. But justification is not the standard of rationality.

As Popper pointed out in Chapter I of "Realism and the Aim of Science" justification is impossible, unnecessary and undesirable. If you assess ideas using argument then the arguments have premises and rules of inference and the result of the argument may not be true (or probably true) if the premises and rules of inference are false. You might try to solve this by coming up with a new argument that proves the premises and rules of inference but then you have the same problem with those premises and rules of inference. You might say that some stuff is indubitably true (or probably true), and you can use that as a foundation. But that just means you have cut off a possible avenue of intellectual progress since the foundation can't be explained in terms of anything deeper. And in any case there is nothing that can fill that role. Sense experience won't work since you can misinterpret information from your sense organs, e.g. - optical illusions. Sense organs also fail to record lots of stuff that does exist, e.g. - neutrinos. Scientific instruments aren't infallible either since you can make mistakes in setting them up, in interpreting information from them and so on.

We don't create knowledge (useful or explanatory information) by showing stuff is true or probably true for reasons so how do we create knowledge? We can only create knowledge by finding mistakes in our current ideas and correcting them piecemeal. You notice a problem with your current ideas, propose solutions, criticise the solutions until only one is left and then find a new problem. We shouldn't say that a theory is false because it hasn't been proven because this applies to all theories. Rather, we should look at what problems it aims to solve and ask whether it solves them. We should look at whether it is compatible with other current knowledge and if not try to figure out the best solution. Should the new idea be discarded or the old idea or can some variant of both solve the problem?

So the question we ought to ask is whether the existence of god solves any problems. A criticism of the idea of God would point out that it doesn't solve any problems. If God made the laws of morality or science or whatever a particular way for some reason, then any physical mechanism that respects that principle would explain the same phenomenon. For example, if God made organisms to keep their genes in existence, then evolution explains their behaviour better than God. And if God had no reason for making the world behave a particular way then we might as well say "shit happens" rather than go to the trouble of postulating God. So God's existence solves no problems. And since God introduces lots of problems, like the problem of evil, the idea should be ditched.

In addition, the atheist is taking a clear position that lays his views open to criticism. The agnostic does not admit that theism is refuted by the criticisms of the idea of God, and he is fudging. The agnostic ignores criticisms and does not state a clear position, both of which are irrational.


Posted 2015-03-21T20:41:29.407

Reputation: 6 821

first off, welcome back? Second, please see and . Any chance you could incorporate by reference rather than repeat?

– virmaior – 2015-05-13T07:11:12.117