3 AM Philosophy

Hemant Mehta and Agnosticism…Mistakes were made

First let me say that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Hemant Mehta and he was a most gracious guest on the NonSequitur show back when we first got started. However, in his recent blog he said a number of things which I just can’t let go unchallenged.

In his blog about Tim Barton, a Christian co-host on the WallBuilders Live radio show argued on the show that atheist don’t exist because “they would have to have all the knowledge in the world”. Of course, I completely agree with Hemant Mr. Barton’s argument is horribly bad. Mr. Barton argued:

The best you can be, if you’re going to be intellectually honest, is an agnostic saying, “I don’t really know if there is a god or not.” You actually can’t be an atheist. To be an atheist, you have to be able to make a definitive claim There is no god.

In order for you to make that claim, you have to have all knowledge;”

This of course doesn’t follow as saying that there isn’t a God is merely a doxastic (belief) claim not a knowledge one. Mr. Barton is making the mistake of saying someone isn’t allowed to hold any belief unless they know the belief is true, and that just isn’t how beliefs work. While knowledge is a subset of belief, merely holding a belief just requires one has sufficient justification to hold that particular belief. I think also there is some equivocation going on here with the term “knowledge here”. Mr. Barton is arguing “knowledge” as explicit knowledge (or information) or maybe even tacit knowledge, but not epistemological knowledge…and to hold a belief it doesn’t require epistemic knowledge, it just requires sufficient information to have justification to warrant holding the belief.

Hemet, however, says a few troublesome things in his most recent blog post to which I would like to address here.

1) “There’s so much ignorance in here, I don’t even know where to begin. But just to respond to the biggest claim, atheists do not say “There is no god.” You can’t prove that in any definitive way. We get that. Unlike religious people, however, we don’t pretend to understand what we can’t possibly know.”

While I agree Mr. Barton is completely ignorant in his statement, there are many atheist who *do* say that there is no God. I think I have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the word “atheist” as most commonly and best understood in philosophical literature, and perhaps even in general parlance, is someone who believes that there are no Gods. Saying there is no God does not require someone to prove that there is no God. Again, as I have explained in prior posts the burden of proof does not require one to prove that there is no God to be an atheist who claims that there isn’t one; merely they need to show their belief is justified. Or more simply put- One does not have to know there is no God to believe or claim that no God exists. ¹

2) “The burden of proof is always on the people making the claim, so it’s up to religious people to prove their God actually exists.”

While “The burden of proof is always on the people making the claim” is true, it is a very incomplete idiom. The burden of proof exists when anyone has a belief, claim, or position with respect to a proposition. This includes also simply withholding affirmation on a given proposition offered for evaluation (e.g., If I say to you “I exist” and ask you to evaluate that proposition and you fail to affirm with no given justificatory reason provided then I would assert you would have an irrational position even though you are not making any positive claim that I don’t exist).²

3) “This idea that all atheists are actually agnostics is a cheap apologetics trick that suggests we’re even closer to accepting God than anyone might imagine! However it’s never really a mic drop moment. All atheists — certainly the ones I know — are open to the possibility of God’s existence. Show us proof and we’ll believe.”

While claiming atheists are actually agnostics is a cheap apologetics trick, claiming agnostics are actually atheists is just as much a cheap “New Atheism” trick. I have continually shown that in academia that agnostics are in fact philosophically speaking not atheist and yet many “New Atheist” are constantly parroting atheist they see on YouTube that agnosticism is a subset of atheism or “answers a different question” and trying to misguidedly subsume agnosticism under atheism. As David Silverman once cringely said:

If you don’t have any belief in any literal god(s), but you absolutely hate the word atheist—tough @%@#, you’re still an atheist“.

Well, I don’t hate the word atheist. It just doesn’t properly describe my philosophical position, and “agnosticism” does. Are not atheist usually the ones constantly telling people that a person gets to define themselves? Yet, according to David Silverman clearly an agnostic is not allowed to do that…tough @%@# he says. Hmmm…hypocrisy much?

In addition, being open to the possibility of God existing is unrelated to atheism and to agnosticism. Being open to the possibility of God existing falls more under virtue epistemology and having the epistemic virtue of being “open-minded”. There isn’t a special category of atheist which you can compartmentalize someone who is open-minded vs closed minded…not saying one can not make one up if they so choose I guess. (“open atheist” vs “closed atheist”?)

4) “Agnosticism, on the other hand, is all about whether or not we can ever know the answer. It’s a different question altogether.”

This is just conceptually incomplete. It isn’t “all about” whether or not we can every answer the question of if God exists or not. Agnosticism *can* refer to the epistemological question of “Can we know if God exists?” or to the epistemological proposition of “God is knowable”, but it is polysemous having multiple meanings³; however, in reference to the proposition of theism agnosticism is “is often defined, both in and outside of philosophy, not as a principle or any other sort of proposition but instead as the psychological state of being an agnostic”⁴ while an agnostic is:

“an agnostic is a person who has entertained the proposition that there is a God but believes neither that it is true nor that it is false.” – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)⁴

An agnostic, as most commonly held in philosophy, is someone who has tried to evaluate the proposition if God exist and has suspended judgment. To quote atheist philosopher and friend Dr. Alex Malpass:

The agnostic believes that they have insufficient evidence to come to a conclusion about whether there is a god or not, so they suspend judgement about that question. They lack a belief about p, but they possess a belief about whether they lack a belief about p (and maybe also about whether it is knowable at all, etc). So it is a belief position, but it is what philosophers would call a second-order belief; a belief about a belief.”

5) “Christian Pseudo-historian, Jr. chooses to ignore all these things. He’s saying the sort of thing you could only say if you’ve grown up around Christian apologists. He only knows how to talk about atheists because he’s obviously never talked to atheists.”

While I don’t disagree with the sentiment, maybe Hemant should take his own advice as he seems to talk about agnostics, but obviously never talked to agnostics. If that does happen to be the case, I am here for that particular conversation.

(Note: I did a very long time before NonSequitur ask Hemant if he would be willing to discuss agnosticism with me. He politely declined saying it wasn’t a topic he much cared about.)


¹ Atheists and the Burden of Proof

² Failing to Assent and the Burden of Proof

³ “Agnosticism” in 3 ways.

⁴ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hemant’s blog:
Atheists Don’t Actually Exist, Says Christian Pseudo-historian’s Son  (May 17, 2019)

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