On Provisional Judgments and Operational Atheism

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by Tim Widowfield

In a recent blog post, I said I don’t believe in the supernatural. This statement, I realize, takes a pretty broad swipe at the universe. But if you have read my previous statements on belief, unbelief, atheism, etc., you’ll understand my lack of belief is, for the most part, not characterized by active disbelief. Instead, I consider it a provisional judgment on how to deal with life. To me, the natural world is the world.

Similarly, when I say I don’t believe in gods, angels, demons, leprechauns, elves, or any other magical beings, I’m not saying I positively know they don’t exist; I’m merely saying I lack belief in them. Operationally, I find no need for them. Can I prove they don’t exist? No, I cannot — nor do I wish to waste time trying.

A commenter on Vridar, John MacDonald, recently wrote:

It’s just as much a paralogism to think (i) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is such a thing as the supernatural, as to think (ii) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is no such thing as the supernatural. Both theism and atheism are factually incorrect and intellectually lazy. Agnosticism is the “Thinking-Person’s Position.”

If you haven’t studied for the SAT, the LSAT, or the GRE recently, a paralogism is “A piece of illogical or fallacious reasoning, especially one which appears superficially logical or which the reasoner believes to be logical.” [OED] In the realm of logic, it normally refers specifically to an argument that is invalid, but unintentionally so. However, in the general sense, it has come to refer to any invalid argument as well as any invalid conclusion. I’ll assume he means that I have reached an incorrect conclusion, since I presented no formal argument.

MacDonald’s problem, and he is not alone here, is not understanding the current definitions of agnosticism and atheism. In addition, he does not understand that stating a provisional judgment is not the same as arguing that there is sufficient evidence to prove non-existence.

Agnosticism and atheism answer two different questions. I ask you: Do you think we have enough information to absolutely exclude the possibility that God exists? You probably don’t. That makes you an agnostic. Welcome to the club. Many honest theists and atheists agree that there is no possible way for humans to know with absolute certainty that God exists or doesn’t exist. I’m in that camp, too.

Now for your second question: Do you believe in God? If you answered, “I am an agnostic,” then I must remind you that I did not ask if you could know. This is a different question.  I’m asking whether you believe or not. Let me quote from a previous post:

Do we [atheists] actively believe God does not exist? Actually, no. It takes no effort at all to lack a belief. For example, if you grew up as a Christian, you probably lack the belief in the transmigration of souls. Same here. People might reincarnate after they die, but I think it’s extremely unlikely. So I can truthfully say, “I don’t believe in samsara.” But I don’t spend any time thinking about it or actively disbelieving in it.

So, I’ll ask again: Do you believe in God? I’ll tell you plainly that I don’t, and I’ll also admit to you that I can’t know. If you think atheism means knowing God doesn’t exist, then you are not well informed. Many atheists subscribe to “weak” or “pragmatic” atheism. I prefer to think of myself as “operationally atheistic.”

Speaking as a veteran agnostic, I’m not sure I would call agnosticism “The Thinking-Person’s Position.” Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s the correct position, but I’m not sure that it takes us very far. It is insufficient. Yes, it’s a fine philosophical stance. It helps ground us and remind us that our knowledge is limited and our judgments are provisional. We could be wrong. Given the history of science, we probably are wrong. That took us all of what? 30 seconds?

Now what?

The truth is that most of us are operationally non-supernatural. We solve problems assuming that the natural world is the world. Even the most religious among us will, upon waking with a toothache, visit their dentist and not their priest. Similarly, we may joke about gremlins, but during an accident investigation we assume (at least operationally) that only normal physics will apply.

I would be factually incorrect and intellectually lazy if I failed to mention the enormous amount of debunking work that James Randi has put forth over the years. The sad truth is that supernatural claims wither under review. We are justified in our skepticism. Our experience reinforces this fact. We must demand proof, and if the claims are real, they’ll stand up to scrutiny. Can the Amazing Randi disprove God? Nope. But he can tell you how faith healers fool their gullible crowds.

So, in a nutshell, I am a skeptic who is philosophically agnostic and operationally atheist. I demand evidence, but I’m willing to operate with limited knowledge, which is handy since that’s all we have. I live my life as if the supernatural world does not exist, but I admit that I could be wrong. I make provisional judgments, and then I get on with life.

On second thought I suppose agnosticism is the “Thinking-Person’s Position,” if by that MacDonald means thinking, but never acting, never making a claim. The intellectual Hamlet — sullen, brooding, posing, but never deciding, never getting off the fence.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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13 thoughts on “On Provisional Judgments and Operational Atheism”

  1. Thanks Tim

    I too have found my own way of thinking about this insightful blog of yours. I move between a sliding scale of atheism and agnosticism, depending on what issue or idea or piece of data is being put forward. More of a methodical agnosticism or atheism, not a worldview.

    These days, when I am confronted by a Christian theist and they ask me if I am an atheist I simply throw it back in their own ballpark and comment that they too are “atheist” or “agnostics” too in some way. They get upset. Then I ask them if they believe in all the others gods that come from both ancient and modern books. All these gods are born in Books! Literary creations and everyone who is in those stories is made up of “characters” or inserted as characters in the story (historical or not) in the story…including Yahweh himself! Yes! Yahweh himself is a “character. ”

    They tell me it is their god who is the true one and everyone else’s god is false! After a while it just goes downhill because they can’t disprove the other gods or even defend what they say is “my god”…my lord”.

    I also tell my friends and others who try to evangelize me the following : I don’t know enough about the natural world to say there is no god “there” or no god “here.” I don’t know the natural world that well. Many of us don’t. I have often found Nature to be “super” in many ways.
    I have no time or energy or skills to explore off planet gods or Jesus’s floating around out there. I like playing the game of theology but without all the fear and threat and danger associated with it.

    If I meet the big “G” in Biblical terms someday… after this life…and I don’t know what to say…and if there is a threat or judgment awaiting me…I will just have to remind him of his so-called word in Isaiah…and use it against him!

    “Set forth your case…and come let us reason together.”

    What else could I do or say! If there is some “god” I bet you he or she or whatever is way beyond our ideas and images,, and we are all going to be surprised when or if we wake up from death or he really comes down here and we won’t have to say anymore…”Show me the money””…

    thanks again Tim.

  2. A lot of slippery terminology like ‘agnosticism’ would be better served with more actual thinking, ironically enough.

    Suffice it to say, I’m not (just) an agnostic. I’m a Bayesian. Beliefs should be reasonably quantified so that they can be compared. After all, beliefs don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re meant to compete with other beliefs in the marketplace of explanations.

    If I’m 99% sure that no gods exist, does admitting to a certain degree of uncertainty mean I’m an agnostic? What if I was 40% sure that no gods exist? Not only does this allow me to compare beliefs logically, but it also means I’m open to new evidence that might sway me in another direction.

    On the other hand, relying on the word instead of the degree of certainty allows anyone hearing it to insert whatever they want into the space based on their prejudices or biases. I practice a bit of sleight of hand when people ask me what I believe by saying I’m an agnostic precisely for this reason. I can throw that term out and non-thinking people can be satisfied with the answer.

  3. J. Q

    I think I see what you are getting at. I will have to think about that a bit more. I am not arguing the contours of agnostic… I have even played with that word in some discussions by saying in some contexts I am

    a gnostic….. I really do KNOW some things clearly or at least have come to a greater certainty on some things than another….also I don’t go merely by quantity of evidence but by quality…you can present a 100 so called pieces of evidence…synthetic or analytic statements and just one really good piece of evidence or logic can render the quantity useless in some empirical case.

    Also, if an incredible claim is presented to me I do ask for evidence of various kinds depending on the question or issue and I might tell them there are many holes in that claim or this claim…etc. and sometimes even tell them the entire thesis is just “all hole””.. I might have holes in my claims as well,,,but simply because someone sees the holes in mine or I admit I don’t know …but they do…and then throw their gods or gimmicks into that hole in my claim or position and thinks that is all that is sufficient to prove me wrong… what?! I’ve been in situations where the other and I were both wrong.

    It is very difficult coming out of a personal, passionate and professional relationship to the Christian faith and then try on new ways of getting a hold on what is real, since you have to move a lot of furniture around to see what fits the facts. If the shoe doesn’t fit the foot in a lot of ways why would you want to wear it.

    I am not hear to argue a lot of philosophy, even though I have formally studied it. I like learning about the nature and use and function of all these texts that are talked about re: these celestial figures and humans and lots more in the ancient texts and “histories” that are discussed on this sight.

    Just sharing personal aspects of my own journey through a lot of tough questions. I am glad I am still asking and questioning regarding ‘god-talk” and so on, given there is so much bullshit out there among many disciplines.

  4. Believing in the supernatural and believing in a creator are two different things. Mankind has brought new lifeforms into this world, but that does not make us gods. While I cannot exclude the possibility of a creator of mankind, I feel very comfortable in rejecting an institution that gives certain human beings control over the rest of thus because “god said so.”

    I feel that “atheism” is more a rejection of an organized conception of a higher power than it is a rejection of the possibility of a “higher power” itself. Atheists don’t waste any time on pagans, they focus on mass organized religion because of the social institutions they are.

  5. The word “God” (or even “god”) is fraught with all sorts of associations that one can never get past as soon as the word is invoked. Similarly, the word “atheist” tends to bring up the same associations, because it is seen as an activist position in opposition to all the cultural associations. One can’t even begin to think in these boxes. The problem is in how to explain to others, using a word or a category, where one’s thinking actually is, and it is near impossible. Skepticism often attracts many people who simply believe “when you’re dead, that’s it,” but this is as much an egocentric position as the one that says “when we die we go to heaven.” It’s impossible to encapsulate a long, evolving contemplation on the nature of life/death in a few words. One can see suggestions of it in the work of Walt Whitman, but Whitman did not write out a philosophy. One key point is that, so far as we are able to tell, death has no consciousness or duration. Think about that for about 5 days and see what you come up with.

  6. There’s a similar problem with ‘supernatural’ as there is with ‘god’, it isn’t defined well enough. In many cases, perfectly natural phenomena have been mistaken for supernatural, and if supernatural phenomena would have occurred, chances are they’d go unnoticed.
    How would supernatural even work? How do we tell supernatural from simply unexplained? What if there is something like a god, but its existence is rooted in natural laws governing the Universe?

    It’s safe to say supernatural is just a trope from folk tales, a name without an object. Maybe one day an object sufficiently fitting the name will be matched, but now it just does not exist.

  7. Mr. S. G

    Can you tell the people here what is the difference between the two claims you made in your comment:

    “Believing in the supernatural and believing in a creator are two different things.”

    Furthermore, what criteria can you provide for telling the difference?

    You have made a strange claim. Back it up and let the chips fall where they may.

    I am neither a believer in “gods” who tell you what to think, and do, and feel nor in the supernatural . Have you even defined these properly. Just asking my friend since it might help us to know what on earth do you mean?


    Marty Lewadny

  8. Most of these discussions refer to belief or disbelief or agnosticism about “God”. But what does that mean?
    There are many, very different, “gods” for people to believe or disbelieve in or be agnostic about. Even Christians are divided into at least the two major groups of Trinitarian and Unitarian, and neither believes in the “God” of the other.
    How about belief or non-belief or agnosticism about one or another of these, or about some or all or none of these?
    In my case, I happen to have become a non-believer in any of the “gods” I have become aware of, and think unlikely that I will be introduced to one that I could believe in. Does that make me an “atheist” or an “agnostic”? Or just a non-believer?

  9. I too am tired of the debates over “god” or “no god” . Every theist or deist I meet already has some form of definition or description of “their” god or deity in mind before they begin to argue their position. Where do most of these loaded assumptions come from?

    In my experience I have noted that they mostly come from a particular book (ancient or modern) to which they adhere. What they overlook is that their rendering of that god or the gods have to employ human driven hermeneutics to get their images and ideas of god. For the most part many people have little or no knowledge of their own texts and simply use them apologetically and most of the time in even faschist ways. Bible thumping, bible beating,,bible proving..bible bullying etc. etc.

    That is one of the reasons I had to give up on the so-called “Biblical god””, even as someone involved in Biblical scholarship for over 45 years!!! Moreover, most Bible readers forget that both Judaism and Christianity are “revealed” religions and not as such “philosophical” ones. So I often see Christians getting themselves worked up over philosophical defenses of their faith.

    So I ask them quite often, what exactly has their god revealed in space-time history that we can all have common access to and can be verified or falsified as such. Indeed, the bible raises philosophical questions but does not use “abstract” philosophical categories to prove god. It talks about miracles, revelations, prophecies,,etc., things we can all check out if they really happened.

    I have personally investigated many of these and found them not that compelling. The NT claims that these “revelations” were “not done in a corner” Acts 26:26. Oh really now! If anyone investigates the NT carefully one will discover that this is not the case. The revelations were given in “secret” and only those pushing the religion. Here is a good example of one I came across recently while reading the NT again. Caiphas, the high priest was told by Jesus at his trial that Caiphas would witness (or “see”) his powerful supernatural coming in power to set up his own “priesthood” within the context of the 1st cent. CE. Never occured. There are a lot more of these. eg. especially in the area of prophetic revelations. All failures in my reading of the relevant texts. “Every eye” was supposed to see the glorious coming or return of Jesus from the dead.” It was a no show, plain and simple, and no preterist or futurist has recovered from the failure of all the main prophecies.

    I came into the Christian faith based on this so-called “revealed” prophetic material through Hal Lindsey, etc…. and I left the Christian faith many years later based on the total failure of these prophecies as well, etc to be fulfilled. Look at our world… These prophecies are will-o-wisps.

    Despite this ,I am still very much interested in the Bible both as a student and someone quite familiar with it. I have not given up the so-called “search” for god. I am not sure what I would suppose to be looking for anyway…. If there is some “god” out there or here already or in our subconscious we have yet to “find” him. I have not been compelled by any of the gods that have been presented to me. If there is one god or two or whatever, I often get the feeling that they are way beyond what we are even imagining. And moreover they seem totally numb to our suffering down here where we are all going to die!!!!

    We just don’t know yet. And we don’t have any real good tools yet to know how to finally get a hold on them. I often joke with some of my friends about the word god and tell them that is simply a word with little content and when spelt backwards it is spelt “dog”.! Now I know and don’t simply believe “dogs” exist. :).


  10. Can one not define the Judeo Christian God as

    1) Necessary
    2) Omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent
    3) Morally perfect
    4) Creator of all that is (Universe)
    5) Personal


    I think, for instance, that the dual substance ontology could be considered supernatural without including God. Perhaps too a process ontology without Whitehead’s idea in process theology that “God” is necessary.

  11. Bertrand Russell wrote that if he were speaking to another philosopher, he would say he was an agnosti; but if speaking to a man on the street, he would say he was an atheist. That seems like a reasonable approach to me.

  12. The “God of the Philosophers” is just notional bullshit for argument. No one anywhere, ever, has believed in such a “God”. All gods and Gods ever believed in collapse into incoherence on examination. They are impossible – all of them.

  13. Usually the individual believer will insist that his/her “God” is the only real one and is the same as what his/her fellow believers believe, but upon investigation or questioning, it becomes evident that, “revealed” by some priest or “prophet” or based on some of those “revelations”, either way the “god” or God” exists only as having been created by a human mind and subject to all the variations of individual minds. Clearly even the “God” (YHWH or EL or ELOHIM or THEOS) of the Bible can be seen as a name given by writers to their own various ideas of a deity, none of which can be proven to really exist outside the special adaptation in the mind of a believer or his/her chosen “revealer”.

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