Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 1: Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism


Many people have the feeling that these two positions do not adequately cover the field. Should we not distinguish a third position, they say, to wit: that we cannot know whether God exists or not? This view is commonly designated as “agnosticism.” The agnostic usually claims “to leave open” the question of whether or not God exists. Agnosticism is the theory according to which things within a specified realm cannot be known.[147] Although that “specified realm” is not necessarily religion, the term is usually applied in a religious context, more particularly with reference to the existence of God. In that sense the agnostic claims that we cannot know whether or not God exists.[148] Is this a viable position? Many people are convinced it is. “In all rigour, agnosticism is the only defensible position, and it does not advance anybody one step on the road to atheism or one step on the road to theism,” the humanist H.J. Blackham (1903-2009) wrote in 1963.

One of the first questions with regard to the agnostic position is this: what is the agnostic really agnostic about? Does he or she also “leave open” the position that Zeus may exist? Or Allah?

Usually the agnostic does not seriously uphold the idea that the Greek gods may exist. But what exactly is being left unanswered? The agnostic may say: “That’s the question, stupid, I do not know. I have no idea about the nature of God, that’s exactly the reason why I do not want to affirm or deny his existence.” But is that a fruitful position to take? You leave open the existence of something you cannot say anything about.

Probably the agnostic does not leave open the existence of all the gods that humans have venerated from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century, but only the existence of the god that is held in high esteem in the culture in which he or she lives, that is, the theistic god (or God). But in order to leave open the existence of the theistic god, you should at least distinguish some of his characteristics. And once you have done that, why not specify your reasons for holding these characteristics to be compatible or not? Is it impossible to say anything about the likelihood of the existence of a personal, eternal, omnipotent, and perfectly good being? The atheist deems his existence unlikely. The atheist thinks – and here he sides with the theist – that you can argue about those things. The atheist will point out that the existence of evil does not fit in easily with divine omnipotence and perfect goodness. This is adumbrated in a poem by Samuel Porter Putnam (1838-1896).

Putnam was an American atheist and lecturer on freethought whose most important work was a massive history of the freethought movement: Four Hundred Years of Freethought.[149] Putnam’s greatest political success was his effort to defeat a proposal to alter the US Constitution by inserting God into it in 1896. Putnam made a speech before the Joint Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives on March 11 and helped to kill the bill. He also wrote poetry.[150] In “Why Don’t He Lend a Hand” from 1890 Putnam presents a mild critique of the idea that God’s omnipotence can be reconciled with perfect goodness.

You say there is a God
Above the boundless sky,
A wise and wondrous deity
Whose strength none can defy.
You say that he is seated
Upon a throne most grand,
Millions of angels at his beck –
Why don’t he lend a hand?

See how the earth is groaning,
What countless tears are shed,
See how the plague stalks forward
And brave and sweet lie dead.
Homes burn and hearts are breaking,
Grim murder stains the land;
You say he is omnipotent –
Why don’t he lend a hand?

Behold, injustice conquers;
Pain curses every hour;
The good and true and beautiful
Are trampled like the flower.
You say he is our father,
That what he wills doth stand;
If he is thus almighty
Why don’t he lend a hand?

What is this monarch doing
Upon his golden throne,
To right the wrong stupendous,
Give joy instead of moan?
With his resistless majesty,
Each force at his command,
Each law his own creation –
Why don’t he lend a hand?

Alas! I fear he’s sleeping,
Or is himself a dream,
A bubble on thought’s ocean,
Our fancy’s fading dream.
We look in vain to find him
Upon his throne so grand,
Then turn your vision earthward –

’Tis we must lend a hand.
’Tis we must grasp the lightning,
And plough the rugged soil;
’Tis we must beat back suffering,
And plague and murder foil;
’Tis we must build the paradise
And bravely right the wrong;
The god above us faileth,
The god within is strong.[151]

Theodicy, or the reconciliation of evil in the world with God’s omnipotence and goodness, has inspired countless debates between theists and atheists.[152] There is a well-known treatment of this theme in the satirical story, Candide (1759), by Voltaire (1694-1778). Voltaire mocks Leibniz’s thesis that it is all for the best in the best of all possible worlds.[153] James Mill (1773-1836), John Stuart Mill’s father, had similar problems with the theistic conception of God. In his Autobiography (1873) John Stuart (1806-1873) wrote about his father: “He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and rightness.”[154]

Richard Robinson (1902-1996) wrote that in the Christian religion, though perhaps not in any other, we frequently find a conception of god that is self-contradictory and therefore corresponds to nothing. That is the conception formed by the following three propositions together:

  1. God is all-powerful.
  2. God is all-benevolent.
  3. There is much misery in the world.

Robinson contended that a god who was all-powerful but left much misery in the world could not be all-benevolent. An all-benevolent god in a world containing much misery would not be all-powerful. A world containing a god who was both all-powerful and all-benevolent would contain no misery. That means that anyone who is confident that he frequently comes across misery in the world may conclude with confidence that there is no such thing as an all-powerful and all-benevolent god. “And this mathematically disposes of official Christianity,” Robinson implacably wrote.[155]

Sometimes apologists of religion respond to this dilemma by declaring the whole affair a “mystery.” Or they refer to God’s wisdom as being higher than our wisdom. Nevertheless, that would be begging the question. We are still considering whether there is a god, in the sense that he is portrayed in Christian doctrine.

These debates are inconclusive, as so many other philosophical debates are, but they are not meaningless or impossible. Nor are the other discussions of the theistic god. For instance, the question what is the source of morality? Is morality grounded in the will of God? Does the fact that God wills something make that thing eo ipso good? Or is it good in and of itself and therefore willed by God? I will treat some of these problems in Chapter 4 of this book.[156]

These are all important and interesting debates, and the agnostic seems to evade his responsibility as a critical thinker by not participating. By doing this, the agnostic poses as “modest” or “not arrogant,” as someone who does not overestimate the capacity of the human mind. But is that pretence justified? Anthony Thiselton (1937- ) writes: “At first sight agnosticism is often perceived as being less dogmatic and more open than either theism or atheism when applied to belief-systems of religions. It appears to suspend the acceptance or rejection of belief.” That this pretence is unfounded Thiselton substantiates by referring to the “paradox of skepticism”: “How do I know that I cannot know, if I cannot know whether I know?”[157]

It seems not unreasonable to first ask the agnostic what he understands by “God” before entering into a discussion of whether we can know whether God exists. And one thing is sure. The theistic god as “He” appears to us in the Bible and Qur’an has some definite characteristics we can talk and argue about. If the agnostic does not want to join this debate, fine, but that is more a manifestation of his aversion to the philosophy of religion than an interesting religious or quasi-religious position in itself.

Theists and atheists are discussing the theistic concept of god. They are not discussing some kind of unknowable entity. That implies, of course, that the claims of atheism should be limited, as I have expounded before. George I. Mavrodes seems right when he reminds us: “Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God. Some atheists support this claim by arguments. But these arguments are usually directed against the Christian concept of God, and are largely irrelevant to other possible gods. Thus much Western atheism may be better understood as the doctrine that the Christian God does not exist.”[158]

This is partly true. Mavrodes is right that most of the books on the philosophy of religion that have been published in the Western world discuss the characteristics of the theistic God as presented by Christian theologians and philosophers. But because the Christian god is a theistic god and Islam and the Jewish religion subscribe to the theistic concept of god as well, this discussion also has implications for the Islamic and the Jewish concepts of god.

Another question for agnostics is why they do not apply this position to the other dimensions of life. Why be reluctant to choose between the different positions that can be taken with regard to the theistic concept of God and not between those that relate to the other spheres of life? Politics is a difficult business as well. Yet most committed citizens vote. Who has all the available information about politics, international relations, psychology and all the other areas of knowledge where full expertise would be necessary to make a well-considered choice in favor of this government or the other?

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

[147] See: Mautner, Thomas, The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, Penguin Books, London 2000 (1996), p. 9.
[148] Ibid., p. 10.
[149] Putnam, Samuel Porter, Four Hundred Years of Freethought, The Truthseeker Company, New York 1894.
[150] Cooke, Bill, “Samuel Porter Putnam,” in: Tom Flynn, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2007, pp. 624-625.
[151] Quoted in: Stein, Gordon, A Second Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY 1987, pp. 180-81.
[152] See: Larrimore, Mark, ed., The Problem of Evil: A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA 2008.
[153] Voltaire, Candide ou l’Optimisme [Candide or Optimism], Conte philosophique, Éditions Larousse, Paris 2007 (1759).
[154] Mill, John Stuart, Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. Published from the original manu- script in the Columbia University Library, with a preface by John Jacob Coss, Columbia University Press, New York 1924 (1873), p. 28.
[155] Robinson, An Atheist’s Values, p. 124.
[156] See on this: Rachels, James, “God and Human Attitudes,” in: Religious Studies, 7 (1971), pp. 325-37, also in: Rachels, James, Can Ethics Provide Answers? And Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham 1997, pp. 109-125.
[157] Thiselton, Anthony C., A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion, Oneworld Publications, Oxford 2002, p. 4.
[158] Mavrodes, George I., “Atheism and Agnosticism,” in: Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, Oxford New York 1995, pp. 63.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

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  1. Yes, people are agnostic about all kinds of other things.

    I am agnostic about the existence of "alien" beings.

    However, I am more than happy to point out that a Superman comic appears to be a work of fiction, and isn't evidence for the existence of "aliens". I'll argue against having "Truth, Justice, and The American Way" dictated as absolute morality. I'll argue against those trying to scare people into believing in Superman, with threats of eternity in the Phantom Zone, if you don't. I'll argue against having The Adventures of Superman taught in schools as fact. I'll argue against Supermanists trying to dictate that everyone should wear spandex suits with letters on them. Etc.

    On the other hand, a Superman comic also isn't evidence for the non-existence of "alien" beings. It wouldn't matter how many thousands of sci-fi "aliens" you paraded forth and showed to be fiction, you will still never have addressed whether "alien" beings exist, or not.

    I'm also agnostic about the existence of "god" beings, and it doesn't matter how many mythological "gods" you parade forth and show to be fiction, you will still never have addressed whether "god" beings exist, or not.

    Huxley was a scientist, above all else. He saw the scientific method in picking apples at the market. The agnosticism he defined amounted to a form of demarcation. No objective testable evidence = a subjective unfalsifiable claim. Results: unscientific and inconclusive. No belief as to the truth, or falsehood, of the claim.


    "I say, strive earnestly to learn something, not only of the results, but of the methods of science, and then apply those methods to all statements which offer themselves for your belief. If they will not stand that test, they are nought, let them come with what authority they may."

    "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."

    "That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions."

    "I trust that I have now made amends for any ambiguity, or want of fulness, in my previous exposition of that which I hold to be the essence of the Agnostic doctrine. Henceforward, I might hope to hear no more of the assertion that we are necessarily Materialists, Idealists, Atheists, Theists, or any other ists, if experience had led me to think that the proved falsity of a statement was any guarantee against its repetition. And those who appreciate the nature of our position will see, at once, that when Ecclesiasticism declares that we ought to believe this, that, and the other, and are very wicked if we don't, it is impossible for us to give any answer but this: We have not the slightest objection to believe anything you like, if you will give us good grounds for belief; but, if you cannot, we must respectfully refuse, even if that refusal should wreck morality and insure our own damnation several times over. We are quite content to leave that to the decision of the future. The course of the past has impressed us with the firm conviction that no good ever comes of falsehood, and we feel warranted in refusing even to experiment in that direction."


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