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Discussion 2 to Meditation 558
Enough with frivolous probabilities!

by: Will Petillo

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People can label themselves whatever they like, but this is often a reflection of their linguistic confusion rather than their actual beliefs. An Atheist/Agnostic (which Hugo is not the first person I have heard to describe himself as) seems to be a case of the former. The following are how I would characterize persons of various belief sets regarding the existence of God that I think is far more useful than any arbitrary assigning of probability.

Weak theist: “I believe in God…but I could be wrong.”
Strong theist: “I am certain that there is a God.”

Weak Agnostic: “I have no idea whether God exists so I will suspend judgment… for now, at least…”
Strong Agnostic: “Because God is commonly defined as ‘beyond human understanding,’ it is impossible to know to know whether there is a God.”

Weak Atheist: “I don’t believe there is a God…but I could be wrong.”[1]
Strong Atheist: “I am certain that God does not exist.”

Notice that there is a common theme in the differences between the weak and strong positions in all three categories of belief. The weak positions, regardless of how they end up passing judgment, believe that new evidence could sway them. This is because they treat God as an entity that could hypothetically be proven or disproven (though not necessarily by humans), just like anything else in the universe. To all of the strong positions, however, empirical evidence has no bearing on the question of God’s existence and therefore no evidence could possibly sway them. A strong theist believes that God MUST exist,[2] a strong atheist believes that the whole idea of God is impossible and therefore cannot exist,[3] and a strong agnostic believes that—because God is commonly described in mystical terms—God’s nature and existence is unknowable.[4]

Now onto the subject of probability. Leaving aside the total arbitrariness of assigning a probability to the existence of a supernatural Supreme Being, even for people of any of the weak positions Dawkins' scale does not seem to account for the variability in the probabilities one must assign to God’s existence in order to believe, disbelieve, or remain uncertain. Although a person is certainly more likely to believe in God if they are at 2 in Dawkins' scale rather than 6, belief does not necessarily follow from probability. According to the logic of Pascal’s Wager, for example, so long as there is even a slight chance that God could exist, then one should believe in God—this “logic”, however, is flawed because of the number of religions and because it can even be used to argue in favor of atheism. [5]

For all of the strong positions, assigning a probability is meaningless to the point of being misleading. For strong theists and atheists, to say that they assign a 100% and 0% probability (respectively) on God’s existence is to describe them in weak terminology and makes them sound overconfident when their positions actually have got a logical basis. Speaking of which, I made a mistake in an earlier post and before continuing would like to address it:

“As for the certainty of atheists (as well as religious people), I agree with Jasmine, but for slightly different reasons. No one can be absolutely certain about anything—anyone with any background in statistics can tell you this. In terms of knowledge, one can only know beyond a reasonable doubt.”[6]

The above comment is misleading because it confuses strong (a)theism with overconfident weak (a)theism and for this I apologize—though not too much because they’re just as silly. To argue against the strong positions, however, would require addressing every important argument for or against God’s existence ever made, which is a task that I am saving for a future post.

Mentioning probability when discussing strong agnosticism is even worse. The realization that “The existence of a Supreme Being is unknown and unknowable,”[7] brings one to a much more interesting level of confusion regarding the question of religion and to discuss in weak agnostic terminology drags it back down to the intellectual mire of arbitrarily assigned probability. To one who understands the principles of strong agnosticism, a discussion of probability is completely irrelevant. Indeed, if I had to assign a probability, it would waver between 0 and 100% (sometimes in a single day) depending on what mood I am in—right now I would put myself at precisely 50% because John Tyrrell claimed in the previous response to this meditation that such a condition is not reflected in reality and I feel like being contrary.[8] Despite this wavering, however, I would consider myself an Apathetic Agnostic any day of the week. How it is possible to be 0% or 100% confident in God’s existence is a really complex point and will have to be saved for another post.

To reiterate these points in a more conclusive manner, I would like to point out some of the key flaws in Hugo’s argument, which I don’t make for the sake of being mean, but because I take these arguments as serious contentions that deserve to be argued against.

“I am arguing that a number 6 agnostic is also, as most people use the word, an atheist.”

Perhaps, but the validity of this statement depends entirely on what one chooses to believe. If one takes the supposed low probability of God’s existence and uses it as a reason to judge that God does not exist, then it is weak atheism, not agnosticism of any sort. If, on the other hand, the level of certainty is not enough to cast judgment, then one is a weak agnostic. And if one is a strong agnostic, then it doesn’t matter where they are on Dawkins’ scale.

“I think is important to call myself an Atheist because (if conversation has turned this way) I think I would be more likely to make religious people become agnostic or atheist.”

First of all, this statement seems to be suggesting that one should be a strong agnostic but pretend to be an atheist and my attitude towards dishonesty is that if I have to lie to convince someone, then perhaps I am the one who needs to be convinced. Furthermore, it seems counterintuitive to me that a polarized opinion would be more likely to convince someone who disagrees then a seemingly moderate one. Because changing one’s mind is a gradual process, it seems to me like it would be much easier to introduce doubt into a religious person’s mind and from there remove the faith altogether (if one is so inclined) than to simply try to shout them down right from the start.

This brings me to my final point in favor of agnosticism. As I have hinted earlier in this post, the key difference between agnostics and (a)theists is that while the latter cast judgment on whether God exists (if you ask them a yes or no question they will give you a yes or no answer) whereas the former do not. In my opinion, this characteristic in itself is enough reason to be agnostic because abstaining from the dead end of judgment encourages one to remain forever on the infinitely more interesting path towards genuine understanding. One’s level of confusion can be made even more interesting when one understands the true nature of the argument and is led to strong agnosticism, still more interesting when one realizes that the answer is not important and accepts the Apathetic Agnostic articles of faith, and possibly yet more interesting when one realizes the power of the question and… now I’m getting ahead of myself, this thought will be continued in a future post.



  1. This is the position Hugo seems to have, despite his claim to be a strong agnostic / atheist (presumably weak), which appears to be a case of linguistic confusion. 
  2. Possible arguments might include: “why is there something instead of nothing?”, the ontological argument, etc.
  3. “How can there be anything supernatural?  If something exists, it exists in nature and is therefore natural and operates under the same laws as anything else.”  I know, that’s not a good or commonly used argument and thus is kind of a straw man, but I am not familiar with atheist theology and the point here is not to present a strong atheist argument, but only to illustrate what such an argument might look like.
  4. More comprehensive arguments in favor of strong agnosticism are scattered throughout this site, including in John Tyrrell’s response to meditation 556.
  5. See Meditation 527, “Will’s Wager”.
  6. response to Meditation 542.
  7. 1st Apathetic Agnostic article of faith.
  8. If any statistics buffs out there are wondering how I can be at “precisely” any level of confidence, the answer is kinda complicated but is basically something along the lines of: “I say I am 50% confident because I say so.”