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Atheism, theism and agnosticism
Jack Smart argues that the distinction between atheism and agnosticism is unclear, and many people who have passionately described themselves as agnostics were in fact atheists. He writes that this mischaracterization is based on an unreasonable philosophical skepticism that would not allow us to make any claims to knowledge about the world. He proposes instead the following analysis:
Let us consider the appropriateness or otherwise of someone (call him 'Philo') describing himself as a theist, atheist or agnostic. I would suggest that if Philo estimates the various plausibilities to be such that on the evidence before him the probability of theism comes out near to one he should describe himself as a theist and if it comes out near zero he should call himself an atheist, and if it comes out somewhere in the middle he should call himself an agnostic. There are no strict rules about this classification because the borderlines are vague. If need be, like a middle-aged man who is not sure whether to call himself bald or not bald, he should explain himself more fully.
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:
- Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, 'I do not believe, I know.'
- Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. 'I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.'
- Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. 'I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.'
- Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. 'God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.'
- Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. 'I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be sceptical.'
- Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'
- Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.'
Dawkins notes that he would be "surprised to meet many people in category 7." Dawkins calls himself "about a 6, but leaning towards 7 — I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden."