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Jacques-Louis David [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Three Shades of Atheism
How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God

When we think of prominent atheists, we may conjure up an image of one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism—Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett—authors famous for their steadfast rejection of any form of deity and their willingness to confront the world’s religions. Ironically, however, when we see them in debates and interviews, the confidence with which they make their case and discount the opposition may at times seem indistinguishable from the offputting dogmatism of the hyper-religious. How typical of atheists are the Four Horsemen?

Our research, based on a sample of hundreds of respondents to a survey distributed through social media, indicates that they probably represent a common form of atheism but not the majority view. Most atheists express some degree of tentativeness in their beliefs and would be prepared to consider contrary evidence and arguments. In other words, they are skeptical in their orientation rather than dogmatic. However, the prevalence of dogmatic atheism may come as a surprise to some observers, including Richard Dawkins,1 who stated that he “would be surprised to meet many people” who would say “I know there is no God.” Many respondents in our survey said this.

Distinguishing Between Categories of Atheistic Belief

To categorize the various forms of atheism, it is necessary to distinguish among several closely related concepts.

Formal v. informal meanings of atheism. The term atheism literally means an absence of belief in a deity, as in a theismwithout theism. This formal usage broadly encompasses both nonbelief and the explicit rejection of a deity. Nonbelief without any inclination to reject a deity is similar to, but distinguishable from, agnosticism, a term introduced by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1876 at a meeting of Britain’s Metaphysical Society, many of whose members were clergymen, and elaborated upon at a symposium published in 1884 by The Agnostic Annual. Huxley defined agnosticism as the absence of belief one way or the other and the absence of a claim to having any scientific knowledge on the issue:

Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.

Huxley described how he arrived at this position:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist…I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer. They [believers] were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis,’—had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.2

In informal usage atheism usually refers to an explicit belief—or at least an inclination toward the view—that no deity exists. Within this category a further distinction can made between atheists who claim to have knowledge or proof that no deity exists (gnostic position) and atheists who claim that no such knowledge is available and may never be attained (agnostic position).

Agnostic-atheism v. gnostic-atheism. Robert Flint, an influential Scottish philosopher and theologian, advanced a concept of agnostic-atheism in his Croall Lecture of 1887–1888.3 He suggested that the two terms were synonymous and should not be differentiated, arguing that it was possible for an individual both to believe that there is no God and that the question of God’s existence is unanswerable. However, agnostic-atheism clearly differs from Huxley’s agnosticism in that the former includes the belief that no deity exists whereas the latter is noncommittal on the issue. Agnostic-atheism, in turn, implies a concept of gnostic-atheism in which the atheist claims to have proof or knowledge that no deity exists.

From this discussion we may identify three basic categories of atheistic belief:

  1. nonbelief in a deity without taking any position on the issue;
  2. agnostic-atheism, expressing disbelief to some degree but without a claim of knowledge (skepticism); and
  3. gnostic-atheism, firmly rejecting the existence of a deity and claiming to have knowledge or proof that no deity exists (dogmatism). We describe now our research showing that these categories are empirically distinguishable in survey respondents’ explanations of why they do not believe in any form of God.
Survey Methods

Data were collected from several questions included within a larger survey that was developed by the first author for a Master’s Thesis at California State University, Fullerton, on the topic of patterns of moral values among atheists, deists, and theists.

Identifying atheists. A total of 666 participants (a purely coincidental number!), gathered through Facebook and other social media, was categorized according to their responses to six “belief” questions that began with, “Do you believe in a God that…” and then stated a particular trait. Five traits were theistic (e.g., “monitors your behavior,” “intervenes in human affairs”) and one trait was deistic (“created the universe, but refrains from interacting with it”).

An atheist was operationally defined as a respondent who answered “No” to all six belief-in- God questions, thereby meeting the requirements of the formal definition of an atheist. As a check on the validity of this definition, the page that followed asked respondents to indicate if they had a “religious affiliation,” with 11 affiliative options arranged alphabetically from “Buddhist” to “Seventh Day Adventist” (with “Other” at the end) plus two rejectionist options, “None-Atheist” and “None- Agnostic.” It was expected that virtually all of the operationally defined atheists would identify as atheist or agnostic.

Exploring the thoughts of self-identified atheists. A total of 233 respondents selected “Atheist” instead of a religious affiliation and were transferred to another page that presented the question, “Since you selected atheist, would you please elaborate on why ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate characterization of your beliefs than ‘agnostic’? How do you differentiate between these two terms?” Respondents could answer by typing in an open-ended text response (219 total).

Development of coding criteria. The authors initially created tentative criteria for assigning responses to categories based on respondents’ flexibility of belief and whether or not they made a distinction between belief and knowledge. There were four categories, which in current terms were: gnostic-atheism, agnostic-atheism, ambivalentatheism, and “other” (not classifiable).

The authors independently applied the criteria to the first 50 responses and the level of agreement was assessed statistically (using Cohen’s kappa, maximum value =1) to see if it was greater than the level expected by chance. The value found was .746, which was above chance and would generally be considered to show “good agreement” (.60–.80= “good”, .80–1.00=“very good”).4 After discussion of cases of disagreement, the authors independently applied the criteria to the remaining 169 respondents. The kappa value for all 219 cases was .700. The criteria were as follows:

Gnostic-Atheism: Any explicit or implied characterization of the participant’s position as certain or definite.

Agnostic-Atheism: Any effort made to distinguish between a “belief” and “knowledge” position; or participants who indicate that they are open to evidence: they describe their belief as malleable and open to changing based on new information, evidence, or “proof.”

Ambivalent-Atheism: Any use of the phrase “I don’t know” or “I am not sure,” or similar characterizations of belief, without further explanation.

Other: Any statement that does not fit the criteria of the other categories.

Table 1 shows examples of statements that were assigned by both coders to each category.

Survey Results I: Nonbelievers Who Do Not Reject a Deity

Nonbelief and religious affiliation. Of the 666 social media respondents, 366 (55%) met our operational definition of an atheist (which is also the formal definition) by responding “No” to all six belief-in- God questions. Of those who were operationally defined as atheist, responses to the religious affiliation question were as follows: 306 (83%) responded “None”; 232 (63%) identifying as “Atheist”; and 74 (20%) as “Agnostic”.5

Nonbelievers are thus highly likely to reject a religious affiliation (95% confidence interval: 79% to 87%) but a substantial percentage of nonbelievers (at least 13%) do not reject it. It would seem that one could affiliate with a religion for a variety of social and psychological reasons other than belief in a deity, for example, secular Jews who attend religious services for social or emotional reasons, a family that practices the religion, identification with the religion’s moral values, or the absence of a deity in the religion’s ideology, such as Buddhism.

Defining nonbelief: agnosticism + formal atheism. The lightest shade of atheism in our model is nonbelief without taking a position on whether a deity exists. Respondents who identified as agnostic rather than as atheist would meet this requirement provided that they also responded “No” to all belief-in-God questions.

As noted above, there were 74 such respondents. However, there were 34 additional agnostics who could not be classified as nonbelievers because they did not answer No to all the belief-in-God questions.6 One could not simply go with the agnostic label. Combining it with the belief questions was essential.

In contrast, if a respondent self-identified as atheist, in virtually every case she or he answered “No” to all the belief questions. Beyond the 232 validated atheists, one additional respondent was classified as a deist.

Survey Results II: Nonbelievers Who Reject a Deity

Distribution of agnostic- and gnostic-atheists. The majority of self-identified atheists were gnosticatheists, an orientation that we have characterized as dogmatic rather than skeptical. Table 2 shows the distribution of respondents across these two categories.

Most of the respondents were classified as either gnostic- or as agnostic-atheists (206 or 196 depending upon the coder). Both coders classified 117 respondents as gnostic-atheists (53.4%; confidence interval: 47% to 60%) and classified an average of 84 respondents as agnostic-atheists (38.4% of respondents; confidence interval: 32% to 45%).

The Majority of Atheists are Skeptical, Not Dogmatic

The survey data indicate that most atheists in the sample maintained a skeptical orientation toward their own position and were open to considering evidence and arguments favoring a theistic position. The numbers of respondents in each belief category were as follows:

Gnostic-Atheist, 117;
Agnostic-Atheist, 84;
Nonbeliever (uncommitted), 74.

As percentages of the total (275) the distribution was:

Gnostic-Atheist, 43%;
Agnostic-Atheist, 31%;
Nonbeliever (uncommitted), 27%.

Combining the last two categories, 58% (95% confidence interval: 51% to 63%), acknowledged a distinction between what they believed and what they thought they knew, a precondition for critical thinking and reasoned debate.

Conclusions: Faith-Based Atheism

In demonstrating a sizable category of gnostic atheists, our data reveal a way of thinking among many atheists that is fundamentally religious in nature.

Do atheists accept atheism on faith? In The God Delusion, Dawkins proposed a “spectrum of probabilities7 to represent the range of judgments that people could make on the question of God’s existence. It is a continuous scale highlighted by seven landmarks: (1) strong theist, (2) de facto theist, (3) leaning towards theism, (4) completely impartial, (5) leaning towards atheism, (6) de facto atheist, and (7) strong atheist. Dawkins characterizes his own position as (6) and “leaning towards” (7). He states that it is not (7) only because, in principle, one cannot prove that something does not exist. It would have to be accepted on faith, and in contrast to believers in God, “Atheists do not have faith…”

However, when we look at the data we find that more than half of atheists who take a belief position express certainty in the non-existence of God, with statements such as “Atheist means that you are certain there is no such thing as god,” “I’m certain there are no gods,” and “There is no God or other deity and I don’t entertain the notion that there might be.” As Dawkins states, “reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist.” What fills the gap here is faith. At the extreme ends of Dawkins’ scale we essentially have two opposing religions.

Skeptic 22.2 (cover)

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.2 (2017)
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The two shades of theism. The dogmatic and skeptical shades of atheism seem likely to have counterparts on the theistic side of the issue, so that with appropriate defining criteria the methodology we have described here should also reveal gnostic and agnostic forms of theism.

Gnostic-theists would be individuals who equate their beliefs with facts, dogmatically insisting that they have positive knowledge of God’s existence. Agnostic-theists would be individuals who accept the distinction between belief and knowledge, thereby demonstrating a degree of skepticism about their own position, and would indicate that their belief is based on faith, intuition, or an interpretation of natural phenomena. A 5-level, bipolar scale relating theistic and atheistic beliefs would be:

  1. Gnostic-Atheism
  2. Agnostic-Atheism
  3. Nonbelief
  4. Agnostic-Theism
  5. Gnostic-Theism

The scale represents maximum darkness at both ends, the domains of dogmatic thinking. Maintaining a skeptical attitude toward one’s own beliefs can be a challenge but, as the achievements of science have shown, it is a better route to enlightenment. END

About the Authors

Brittany Page earned her BA in Psychology from California State University, Fullerton (CSUF). She is currently in her third and final year to obtain her Master of Science in Clinical Psychology at CSUF. Page’s research interests focus on issues related to morality, political psychology, and anti-atheist prejudice. Her master’s thesis is entitled, “Are atheists immoral? Patterns of values of atheists, deists, and theists on moral foundations.” Brittany also hosts the podcast, “I Doubt It with Dollemore” a twice-weekly news and comment show dedicated to all things news, politics, and religion.

Dr. Douglas J. Navarick is an experimental psychologist and Professor of Psychology at California State University, Fullerton. He regularly teaches courses in Introductory Psychology and Learning and Memory. Since the 1970s, Navarick has published research articles on choice behavior in pigeons and humans and is currently investigating how we make intuitive moral judgments.

  1. Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 73.
  2. Huxley, Thomas H. 1894. Collected Essays, New York: D. Appleton and Co., Vol. 5, 237–238.
  3. Flint, Robert. 1903. Agnosticism: The Croall Lecture for 1887–88. Edinburgh, Scotland: William Blackwood and Sons, 49–51:

    If a man has failed to find any good reason for believing that there is a God, it is perfectly natural and rational that he should not believe that there is a God; and if so, he is an atheist… if he goes farther, and, after an investigation into the nature and reach of human knowledge, ending in the conclusion that the existence of God is incapable of proof, cease to believe in it on the ground that he cannot know it to be true, he is an agnostic and also an atheist—an agnostic-atheist— an atheist because an agnostic… while, then, it is erroneous to identify agnosticism and atheism, it is equally erroneous so to separate them as if the one were exclusive of the other.

  4. (retrieved 3/4/2017)
  5. Of the 28 nonbelievers who did not identify as atheist or agnostic, and who responded to the religious affiliation question, the affiliations were as follows: 6 Buddhist, 4 Christian – Catholic, 2 Christian – Other, 4 Christian – Protestant, 3 Jewish, 3 Seventh Day Adventist, 6 unaffiliated (“other”). An additional 32 nonbelievers did not respond to the religious affiliation question.
  6. 15 were deists (responded “Yes” to deistic trait, not to the five theistic traits), 9 theists (“Yes’ to at least 1 theistic trait), and 10 unclassifiable because they did not complete the belief questions.
  7. Dawkins, op. cit., 72–73.
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Dr Michael Ecker
July 6, 2017 9:44 am

Well, now that we have had a thoughtful thrashing, I would add this one fun thing…

My friend wrote me years ago to talk of a diety.

Noting the spelling, I replied: “Wouldn’t that be the god of weight-watching?”

jack giessner
July 4, 2017 5:33 pm

For the authors
I found the article thought-provoking.

I had a question on the sampling methods. How did you select the 666 (really a coincidence ?!)? The article says from social media sources. Was the attempt to model the US as a whole or was it designed toward people inclined to atheism – random or targeted? I just thought the % of stated atheists at >33% and operational atheist at 55% seems to suggest you are targeting that group. Just trying to understand the method.

July 2, 2017 4:24 am

Since I subscribe to the simulation hypothesis, where do I fit on the quadrant?


Scott S
June 30, 2017 8:31 pm

As one mentioned having so many concepts for God floating around makes these surveys difficult. So let’s just say that we could include any very old intelligence in the universe or before our universe. This is not impossible to imagine. But most Gods would have very low probabilities.

As Doug Hubbard points out people are not very well calibrated until they learn how to estimate quantities with confidences. If I am totally agnostic I might say for me to be 90% certain about the truth of the statement then p(any God) is somewhere in [0,99] % range. I am mostly unknowing. A strong atheist might say with 90% confidence p(any God) is in [0, 0.0001]. The smaller interval demonstrates gnosis as more certain. Each person’s interval is calibrated to what she knows.

When I was a believer I was 90% sure p(my God) is in [90,100]. It doesn’t mean I was well-calibrated. Now it’s p(any God) is in [0,5]. Less agnostic both times. I think this is what the authors were getting at. Not sure what the point to this exercise is though. I also thought these terms were already settled in the past.

Hubbard showed that once a person is trained in estimating 90% confidence intervals for questions like “what is the wingspan of a 747?” And they start being in the intervals 90% of the time, they are calibrated and they can use it in multiple scenarios and the ability to remain calibrated in other estimations will tend to stick with them.

Tim Morway
June 28, 2017 6:39 pm

It seems to me that if God really walked the earth as a man, performed miracles, was crucified and rose from the dead, after 2,000 years there would be no scientific proof.

J Anderson
June 28, 2017 11:51 am

One thing to consider is that in addition to the utter lack of evidence present for any diety/spiritual entity, we also have plausible explanations for why humans would invent diety(ies) and spiritual entities.

As a social psychologist, I can articulate a cluster of theoretically-based reasons (e.g. the problematic nature of existentialism for us, terror management theory [fear of death, not terrorism], need for belongingness, social control, in-group/out-group dynamics, etc.) for humans to construct dieties and organize around those dieties (i.e. build temples/churches, have religious/spiritual rituals, etc.). Having *both* a lack of evidence for the existence of dieties *and* a plausible, theoretically-driven explanation for why humans would construct and organize around them is the reason why I am a strong atheist. This is a scientific, not a dogmatic, position.

You can say I am picking and choosing theories that support my position, conflating belief and knowledge and falling prey to a confirmation bias, and if you are thinking that, then leave me a reply and we’ll collaborate on some research. I’d rather research this question with someone who disagrees with me. These theories are well-established, have bases in evolutionary psychology, and can be tested in this context.

As a scientist, I am disheartened by the use of the word “dogmatic,”
the equivalency of atheism to theism presented in this work, and the way the methods were carried out. While the methodology used is conventional for the type of research the authors are doing (inductive, qualitative), the choice of wording in the presentation of findings is naive and unnecessarily inflammatory, the operationalization of “atheism” is oversimplified and the methods are potentially biased.

Instead of labeling gnostic-atheists as “dogmatic,” why not focus on the intersection of belief and knowledge and leave the label out of it? The authors themselves acknowledge in the introduction that religious dogmatism is offputting. It’s sexy to put labels in the 2×2’s that are sometimes seen in the analysis of results of this type of work, but in this case, the label of dogmatism suggests a negative valence in work that is presented as an effort to illuminate the nature of atheists’ self-categorizations. If I assume this work is a neutral effort at improving knowledge/understanding, why set the stage for both gnostic theistic and gnostic atheistic positions to be offputting?

This is compounded by the use of the “informal” definition of atheism. If the authors had chosen to focus on belief and knowledge, there is no need to use an “informal” definition of atheism, the use of the terms gnostic and agnostic would not be confusing to readers, and the work would at least appear to be more rigorous and neutral. The equation of gnostic athieism and gnostic theism as both religious demonstrates, as others have pointed out, a gross misrepresentation of what theism and atheism are, by definition.

While I’m at it, why not have the responses coded by individuals naive to the research question? The authors stated that during coding they used tentative, pre-determined categories and interrater reliability (Cohen’s kappa) was solid (big surprise). If the model was sound, naive coders would have produced the 2×2 hypothesized. If I really wanna get picky, there should have been no a priori model presented given the nature of the research question. Data should have been gathered, coded by trained (in method, not content), naive coders and emergent themes analyzed; the research question was stated as open, why don’t the methods align with that?

The effect of all of this is that when I read the paper, there is some question as to whether or not the research is biased. This is a problem. Furthermore, it’s either willful, in which case, as some commenters have suggested, the authors hold a theistic position and are taking passive-aggressive jabs at atheists, or they are needlessly stirring a pot and undermining objective discussion about how atheists view themselves. It’s also possible that the research is simply naive and the work needs development in its rigor. Either way, there’s significant room for improvement. I’m kinda disappointed that this article would get so much attention from the Skeptic’s Society with such serious internal issues.

Douglas Navarick
July 1, 2017 11:03 am
Reply to  J Anderson

Replying to J. Anderson, Comment 41

You said that there is an “utter lack of evidence” for a deity and that I should leave you a reply if I think you’ve fallen prey to the “confirmation bias”.

Your comment does suggest that confirmation bias is influencing your thinking on this issue. You never addressed my preceding comment (#40) that presents evidence for a non-material, willful influence on natural processes (origin of life).

Perhaps it was just an oversight that you did not see my name there and the heading in caps indicating what the comment was about, but the fact is that you did not address evidence that was potentially in conflict with your own strongly held beliefs. It’s worth considering the possibility that a confirmation bias is present.

How would you assess this evidence in Comment 40?

Douglas Navarick
June 25, 2017 4:43 am


Many commenters are saying they would consider evidence supporting the concept of a deity if it was available but it just isn’t there. Maybe it’s there and it’s just not being seen.

In The God Delusion Dawkins stated that he was surprised that chemists had not yet created a living cell from something that was not already alive. It’s now 10 years later, and despite advances in molecular biology, chemists have still not demonstrated that “abiogenesis” really happens, that life could have had a material origin.

Does this continuing inability to demonstrate abiogenesis reduce your confidence in a material origin of life?

If your answer is NO, suppose that another 10 years went by and nothing changed. Would that reduce your confidence?

If STILL NO, then could ANY amount of time reduce your confidence?

If you’re still a true believer, then you may want to consider the possibility that you’re thinking religiously, not scientifically. How would you distinguish abiogenesis from a religious prophecy?

Paul Brocklehurst
June 24, 2017 7:42 pm

No, no, no! There are not 3 types of atheism!!! There is only ONE type & I can prove it as well! The ONLY sort of atheist is someone who doesn’t accept claims some god exists. That’s IT. That’s ALL. Any additional issues about whether they can really know whether god claims are untrue or not muddies the water. Theists came up with a claim: A god (or gods) is real. Atheists of ANY sort don’t believe this claim. Atheism isn’t any sort of ‘claim’. If you think it IS then is health ‘a type of disease’ or simply NO disease at all? …Well?

Jenny H
June 23, 2017 10:51 pm

YOU might distinguish ‘evangelic Atheist’ for ‘atheist’.
Richard Dawkins and the like see so desperate to make other people ‘not believe in “God” that one suspects that, like Evangelical Christians, they are really trying to convince themselves

Jenny H
June 23, 2017 10:48 pm

Atheism means “No God” – disbelief in any god or deity.
If a person is willing to consider that there might be a God. then they are correctly called Agnostic — “aka No Knowledge”
I find the whole article highly insulting! No God — no weird whatever anybody means by God.

June 24, 2017 10:44 am
Reply to  Jenny H

@Jenny H sez:

Atheism means ‘No God’ – disbelief in any god or deity.
If a person is willing to consider that there might be a God. then they are correctly called Agnostic — ‘aka No Knowledge’
I find the whole article highly insulting! No God — no weird whatever anybody means by God.”

Hear-hear! One wonders that the authors don’t get that — or chose not to.

I think a small part of the problem might be that atheism is properly described as the absence of belief in gods, but any number of theists have replaced ‘absence’ with ‘lack’, bringing the false implication that there is something desirable missing. There is not.

One could look at two lumps of gold, and note that one has a streak of lead embedded in it, while the other does not. Do we observe that the second nugget “lacks” a lead inclusion? Or, in context, might we observe that the pure nugget is absent any impurity, while the other is an amalgam? It takes a convoluted – one could say biased(?) – turn of mind to consider the pure nugget to be ‘lacking’ an impurity.

Now bring that latter sort of thinking to concepts like theist and a-theist, and you have the makings of an article in Skeptic. An article that would have benefited (or more accurately, Skeptic would have benefited) from better screening.

Allen Germain
June 23, 2017 8:28 am

A very interesting and useful discussion I hope will be augmented with a more thorough discussion on the shades of Theism. On both sides of the theistic/atheistic spectrum, reasonable people assume there are things that monkey brain 2.0 is incapable of understanding; not because of complexity, we have computers for that, but entire logic systems we can never grasp. The Scientific Method,that wonderful invention of the 18th century Enlightenment , is a discipline that applies only to measurable, observable phenomenon and certainly stops short of explaining what lies outside of our mental realm. Indeed, one has to ask, what sort of scientific evidence could possibly produce a Theistic outcome. The thought process that filters all possibilities through what is measurable, is doomed to produce a very limited world view which sometimes forces us to step outside of scientific reductionism in trying to understand what we are.

June 24, 2017 10:31 am
Reply to  Allen Germain

You are conflating “what is measurable” (or not) with “what has been measured” (or is yet-to-be measured).

If something can have an effect on the physical world (or the physical human), then it necessarily has a physical component and is ‘natural’. In principle, then, it or its effects can be measured. If it or its effects are _defined_ as forever unmeasurable, then that is the equivalent of doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.

… angels… dancing… pinheads…

June 23, 2017 7:04 am

The article has more than a whiff of ‘Well, atheists have a religion, too!’.
No, I don’t.
I do not “believe” in “no god”, I simply don’t believe in claims for which there is no evidence, and my life has suffered in no way as a result.
But to paraphrase Shermer, I’m all for eternal life; just give the me evidence, and I’ll be right there!
I’ll let those who compose the surveys call that what they may. I have no control over it.

Dr Michael Ecker
June 22, 2017 8:29 pm

I am in agreement with Mathew Goldstein and many others here. Indeed, I take very strong exception to the labeling of my probabilistic/ almost certain belief that there is no god as being dogmatic.

As others have noted, why can’t one have a strong tentative view of reality and yet simultaneously be open to new evidence? Why does my confidence in my tentative but strong view make me dogmatic?

By sticking the “dogmatic” label on overt disbelief in a god, the authors have not only been incredibly unfair but have done a great disservice.

2B a-, or no a- gnostic
June 23, 2017 4:15 pm

Ditto, well said.
And it is not being dogmatic to say that the burden of proof and evidence rests on the ones making unsubstantiated statements.

June 24, 2017 10:25 am

@Dr Michael Ecker says:

“As others have noted, why can’t one have a strong tentative view of reality and yet simultaneously be open to new evidence? Why does my confidence in my tentative but strong view make me dogmatic?”

Very well said. Where’s the upvote/like button when you need one?

My opinion, having read the article and having seen some of the follow-on apologetics, is that the entire ‘study’ was based on a presumption and faulty reasoning and the imposition of unwarranted definitional restrictions… FOR THE PURPOSE of supporting the presuppositions. In other words, bass-ackward ‘science’.

Has Skeptic been secretly purchased by that Indian company that is buying up science journals and turning them predatory and antiscientific? Anybody wanna start yet-another conspiracy theory? :-)

Douglas Navarick
June 26, 2017 1:08 pm

Respondents were classified according to what they wrote.

If you had written the phrases you used here:

Probabilistic/almost certain
Strong tentative view of reality
Open to new evidence

you would have been classified as AGNOSTIC-ATHEIST (skeptical), not gnostic-atheist (dogmatic).

We probed participants’ thoughts as expressed spontaneously, without prompting or debate.

For additional perspective on your views you may want to check out my comment listed as #40.

Mary Goetsch
June 22, 2017 4:23 pm

Theists, too, should realize the difference between gnostic theism, which early Christian church fathers fought so fiercely. Isn’t it better just from the agreeableness factor to be agnostic in anything? It is easier than taking a position between atheism and theism. Perhaps being one-day atheist, the next day theist, average the polar opposites and one gets a wishy-washy agnostic!

John G
June 22, 2017 3:23 pm

A lot of posts seem to call out for evidence in a empirical, scientific fashion about theist position. “What’s their proof?” could someone says.
But that seem wrong from the start. How you search then exclude any “meta-empirical” thought and arguments. If you say that empical scientific knowledge is giving you confidence about ordinary knowledge believes, that is a thing.
But if that confidence means that it is only the empirical evidence that is worth believing to, there is always at least a moral assumption that what is “worth” something is emprical thruth alone.
“What should I do ?” is not a question for scientists, when we ask ourselves what is good and what is evil.
Also, keeping the research to empirical evidence exclude existencial thoughts like “why do thing exist ?” “why do I exist?”
Either :
1- things exist by themselves (then it is a irrelevant question) Things happen because … they happen
2- things exist by a cause
Typical philosophical consideration arround “God” as a meta-empirical hypothesis.

Arieh Ben-Naim
June 22, 2017 2:41 pm

When I am asked : do you believe in God?
I ask back: do you believe in Kukuriku?
Most people would ask: what is kukuriku?
My answer is : I don’t know.
Therefore I do not belong to any category mentioned in your article.
To say that one does not believe in god, is admittance of knowing what got is.
Since I have no idea what one means by “god” or by “God” I cannot answer the first question, as stated above.

Jenny H
June 23, 2017 10:57 pm
Reply to  Arieh Ben-Naim

Whatever believers think that God/Allah/Brahma/whatever is, we do not know — because I have yet to meet a believer who can say what he/she actually believes “god” is, and every believer will tell you something different.
Even if you discover some force/matter that seems to be akin to what some believers have sais “god’ is does NOT mean that you have discovered “God.”

June 24, 2017 10:17 am
Reply to  Arieh Ben-Naim

@Arieh Ben-Naim said:

“To say that one does not believe in god, is admittance of knowing what got (sic) is.
Since I have no idea what one means by ‘god’ or by ‘God’ I cannot answer the first question, as stated above.”

In isolation, that comment stands. The trouble with it is that, as long as I can remember, no-one has ever asserted to me that “god exists” without being more than willing to define/describe what they mean.
Not well, mind you, but they always try.

It’s pretty-much impossible to live in society without encountering such definitions. Whether they are coherent or contradict each other or are self-contradictory is a separate question.

Michael B
June 22, 2017 11:38 am

I do see any possibility that an anthropic fantasy creates any responsibility on the universe’s part to create a possibility. I think of this to be the Atheist Special Creation Myth. It is just a philosophic dodge to endlessly pursue dead ends and denial of how little what people fantasize about matters.
I also don’t see this as an absence of evidence claim. The evidence is the source of the claim and the incessantly changing and self falsifiable claims of the source.
One thing I think you could do to parse this line of inquiry is to identify ideological atheist as separate from philosophical atheist from epistemological atheist.

Aintquite Wright
June 22, 2017 9:14 am

They should have started their article by saying “We are defining knowledge as a degree of certainty no one can have about anything. By our definition of knowing you can not know 2+2=4.” That is the definition they appear to be using without saying so.
Search You Tube for “three shades of atheism” for a video about this article and more comments.

June 22, 2017 5:14 am

Contemporary culture is awash with conspiracy theories, whether Obama’s birthplace, 9/11, JFK’s assassination, Elvis sightings, Roswell, NM or the moon landings. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary these theories manage to gain traction over time and with an ever increasing population of adherents. The rest of us know these people are wrong and usually find futility in trying to change their minds. Conspiracy theories are therefore false beliefs, the strongest of them held with a religious fervor.

Belief in super natural agency and all the religions that sprouted from it is therefore the world’s oldest, largest and most elaborate conspiracy theory. The conditions that occurred 100, 1000 or 10,000 years ago that gave rise to supernatural explanations for the natural world can be explained by science with exceptional accuracy, yet “believers” gave rise to God(s) and the religious phenomenon via the mental failing which today we call conspiracy theories. Religious belief is therefore a mental failing, often though not always correctable.

June 22, 2017 12:38 am

Thank you Ann W – succinct and excellent exposition of the deistic narrative. This is already in my rebuttal file.

Ann W
June 22, 2017 4:26 am
Reply to  Ron


I can tell from your posts that you are one of the intelligent, good-looking ones!

Thanks, Dad!


Ann W
June 21, 2017 8:44 pm

When it comes to the existence of God, there are only two possibilities:

A: God does not exist
B: God does exist

If the answer is in fact A, then that is the end of the matter even if we don’t realize that.

If the answer is in fact B, then there are only two possibilities:
B1: God exists but never interacts with us
B2: God exists and does interact with us.

If the answer is in fact B1, this is a proposition that merely dissolves into Deist fantasy. A god who “never interacts with us” is the same as “no god at all.”
And there is no difference between “no god at all” and “the same as no god at all.”

If the answer is thought to be B2, then it is based on false information because no supernatural being or event ever interacted with us. Not ever. Not from the beginning of time up to the present moment, not from the most minute organism or subatomic particle to the largest galaxy. Not anything. Not ever. Every single phenomenon ever is strictly due to natural causes and no supernatural phenomenon has ever been observed. No supernatural intervention has ever occurred or has been necessary to have attained the natural universe. Not ever. Not even once.

So in summary:
A God (or anything supernatural) does not exist — End of story
B: Something supernatural does exist
B1: But does not interact with us — Same as “does not exist”
B2: Does interact with us — False

Bob Pease
June 22, 2017 2:19 pm
Reply to  Ann W

If this argument was presented in a formal debate about anything watever , the police would have to be called.
This is because the audiece would start throwing stuff.

There’s something basically wrong with the argument and people respond to this with anger at having be asked to waste their time.

Douglas Hofstadter has
written to exhaustion on this type of verbal banderwhacky.

Alan Ginsberg hs presented the prototype:

Is God holy?
Are You holy?
Is Holy Holy ??

Dr. Sidethink Hp. D.

2B a-, or no a- gnostic
June 23, 2017 4:05 pm
Reply to  Ann W

Yes, brilliant, Ann W.
Except you just killed Santa Claus with one B2 strike.
But like all fakes and human fantasies, he is indestructible.

Barbara Harwood
June 21, 2017 6:34 pm

One thing that has to be considered when addressing the matter of atheism is the person’s upbringing. Did the parents believe and attend religious services or were the children merely sent to Sunday school to get ring of them? Did they reject all religions or just the one in which they were brought up?
The very fact that we are thinking and asking questions indicates something about us that reflects a greater spiritual entity of which we are all a part.
Most of those who have responded claim to be atheists of one kind or other, but are they rejecting a deity that sits in the sky somewhere or the essence that gives us life?

June 24, 2017 12:36 pm

@Barbara Harwood said:

“Most of those who have responded claim to be atheists of one kind or other, but are they rejecting a deity that sits in the sky somewhere or the essence that gives us life?”

Given that we all (reading this) have life, and that we observe countless organisms around us that also have life, how could one differentiate between naturally living organisms with no supernatural component or influence, and organisms that have all the structure and content but require a supernatural “essence” to live?

And if you can answer that, we can talk about viruses….

In other words, if the definition is made sufficiently nebulous, how can one discern between god and no god?

Where does this “essence” live, when it’s not in a living organism? And if it can’t live anywhere but in a living organism, why is it not generated BY the living organism? And if it doesn’t exist without a living organism, what is the point of claiming that it somehow exists in any meaningful way? What is gained? What can we predict from the claim, and test?

As a different approach, we know that the entire world is covered in a thin layer of excrement. We know where that “essence” came from. . .

Douglas Navarick
June 26, 2017 1:33 pm
Reply to  kevinmcl

I discuss this issue of life being material or non-material in my comment below listed as #40.

It is also the focus of my article on “The ‘God’ Construct” that was in Skeptic a couple of years.

Traruh Synred
June 21, 2017 5:54 pm

God: “Don’t blame me, I don’t exist”

June 24, 2017 10:05 am
Reply to  Traruh Synred

@Traruh Synred sez:

“God: ‘Don’t blame me, I don’t exist’ ”

As near as I can tell, the only ‘valid’ personal reason for wanting a god to exist is to have something to blame for the gratuitous crap of life.

“I wish you existed, so I could punch you in the face.”

Traruh Synred
June 21, 2017 5:52 pm

What kind of an atheist I am depends on what kind of God you’re talking about.

If you’re talking about a good and powerful (‘all powerful’) God than the experimental evidence is overwhelmingly against it. Call me a plain old atheist — though I have evidence!

If God through so called representatives offer the excuse that “My good is not your” good, then we have another word for that — evil!

If your talking about the Gods of Martin Gardner or Thomas Jefferson, I’m a little more moderate. Such a Gods is unprovable or disprovable as their existence has no consequence. But you could call me an agnostic, but one not much interested in the answer.

June 21, 2017 5:29 pm

After reading the definitions in the study, which are erroneous in my opinion, then I see the results, I can see why they came to conclusions I believe to be wrong. Perhaps it is me, but I see a definite decline in the quality of articles published by Skeptic starting a several years ago.

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