Atheism vs. Agnosticism: Is There Any Way to Know for Certain? 17

Can anyone claim God doen’t exist?

Are agnostics just atheists who don’t want to declare their atheism? Are atheists just agnostics who don’t want to admit the possibility of a God. To be fair, we should let them speak for themselves. Here is what one renowned scientist has to say about his agnosticism:

The honest agnostic or atheist — we should assume that most of them are honest — makes a distinction between what he believes and what he claims to know. He then suggests that everyone else should do the same. The model below tries to depict the various possible states of mind a person can hold regarding the existence of God, based on these criteria. I think this model is limited (after all, it’s just a model), but it does give some general idea about these different states of mind, which involve varying degrees of certainty and belief.

[I borrowed the image from this sight]

This model is imperfect, because it does not bring into account several other states of mind besides belief and certainty. I believe it is important to make these distinctions, not only if you question God’s existence, but also if you believe in God and claim that anyone can be certain that God exists — a very bold claim indeed. To make that claim you not only need to know the difference between belief an certainty, but you also need to understand the other states of mind regarding the possession of truth as well.

Possible States of Mind with Respect to Attaining Truth

  • Error is the mental state of incorrectness, when what one judges to be the case does not correspond to the actual state of affairs in reality. For example: The sun and all the planets orbit the earth.
  • Ignorance is lack of knowledge with regard to some given fact or set of facts. For example: I was told that Mount Everest is in Tibet, but I don’t even know where Tibet is.
  • Suspicion is an inclination of the intellect to affirm something as true without giving full assent. For example: I can’t find my wallet. I think someone picked my pocket on the subway.
  • Doubt is indecision or suspension of judgment when faced with two apparently equal possibilities that cannot both be true at the same time. For example: It is very possible that there could be life on other planets, but I doubt it, because no one can know for sure based on the evidence we have so far.
  • Opinion is a weak sort of assent based on reasonable considerations, accompanied by the realization that one could still be wrong. For example: I really think there has to be life on other planets, because the universe is so immense that it just seems impossible for earth to be the only place where life could exist.
  • Certainty is warranted assent to truth, i.e., full assent to the truth of a given fact or set of facts, with the exclusion of all reasonable doubt, based on well-founded evidence. For example: Two physical bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Or… I have a splitting headache.

Two other states of mind need to be added to the list above. They differ from the others in that they involve voluntary consent (not to be confused with assent, which is not voluntary).

  • Denial is a refusal to accept facts that are evidently true and ought to be accepted by any reasonable person (willfully rejecting objective evidence). For example: Elvis is still alive. Or… The Holocaust never happened; It’s all a big historical lie.*
  • Belief is Fully assenting to possibilities that are neither completely evident nor improbable. For example: All life on earth evolved from one single celled organism. Or… God created the entire universe in six days.**

* Here we are not discussing psychological denial, which is a stage in the process of grief.

** Belief in the supernatural is what we call faith, e.g., faith in the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity or the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

When a person holds an opinion, he holds a position stronger than doubt (a suspension of judgment), yet he is not fully committed to his opinion. He remains open to the possibility that he could be wrong. In the case of belief, the person willfully accepts what he believes leaving little if any room for doubt. In many cases the object of belief can neither be verified or falsified. This is not to say that the belief in question is unreasonable, although some beliefs — such as belief in the tooth-fairy beyond the age of, say, 12 — are unreasonable.

Belief differs from both certainty and opinion in the following ways. When a person is in pain, he is not merely of the opinion that he is in pain nor does he just believe he is in pain, he’s certain of it, because the experience of pain is an undeniable phenomenon. Certainty regards facts that the person in question is not able to doubt based on the sufficiency of evidence.

This subtle distinction between belief and certainty implies that one cannot believe and be certain at the same time. If you are unable to accept that, then you don’t accept the distinction, and you can just disregard everything I just said. It is interesting to note, however, what St Thomas Aquinas says in this regard. He holds that one can prove the existence of God, and therefore be certain of it. Yet if one does not accept that rational proofs necessarily demonstrate the existence of God, faith (i.e., belief) suffices. However, there are many things that are unattainable to human reason which Christians believe to be true as a matter of faith (e.g., the doctrine of the Trinity).

Can anyone be certain of God’s existence or is it just a matter of belief?

As I mentioned Aquinas holds that God’s existence can be demonstrated and if it can be demonstrated then it can be made certain. If you accept Aquinas’s proofs then you are certain that God exists.

However. not everyone accepts Aquinas’s 5 ways to prove God’s existence. This does not mean, however, that agnosticism, atheism, or sola fidei are the only resorts. If a person accepts the evidence he finds to be sufficient to make him certain that God exists, then that person would say you can be certain that God exists. There are many types of evidence that people accept as sufficient evidence for Gods existence. One need not accept all of them or any of them in order to believe.

Some of the different types of accepted evidence are:

  • The testimony of martyrs
  • Personally witnessed miracles
  • Miracles that one finds impossible to deny
  • The order of the universe (intelligent design)
  • Personal experience of God in prayer

Whether someone accepts any of these phenomena as sufficient objective evidence for God’s existence depends on each individual — which some might argue makes the criteria for judging mostly subjective. Several believers hold that none of these things actually prove God’s existence.

Many people who have studied the “intelligent design theory,” for instance, say only hints at the existence of a creator, but it fails to actually prove its necessity. As an argument it has too many holes in it — that is why they call it the “God of the gaps theory.” It cannot be used as a scientific (or philosophical) argument to prove God’s existence, because insufficient argument is no argument at all, unless the one using it clarifies that it is only a probable argument, not a demonstration of necessity.

The believer’s faith ultimately rests on Authority (with a capital A). Although many people do not accept arguments from authority (such as the testimony of martyrs), it is perfectly acceptable to accept it in faith, as we do when people tell us that they fulfilled a promise made when we cannot actually verify personally that they kept that promise.

Arguments from authority are, indeed, the weakest form of argument, except for in one scenario, i.e., the scenario of faith. In dogmatic theology, which presumes the acceptance of the doctrine it teaches arguments from Authority are the strongest form of argument. Authority, with a capital A, is the Authority of the one who reveals. It’s the Authority of revelation.

Accepting God’s existence as certain, does not make that person a believer. For instance, one may insist that the order of the universe proves (to him) that there is a God. Nevertheless, he may still refuse to accept the Creed of any specific religious denomination. Furthermore, Christians, for example, do not only believe in a supreme being; they believe that Jesus Christ is God, God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Accepting that doctrine takes faith, since human reason cannot devise ways to attain this knowledge with certainty.

In the end, Christian faith ultimately rests on the acceptance of revealed truth.


  1. Interesting. The way I see it (as an atheist) is that although we can never been 100% sure there is no God (only religion claims it is 100% sure of anything) and it is possible that there is a God that does not intervene in our lives whatsoever, thats pretty much the same result as not existing and there’s no point worshiping it.

    • There are plenty of things any individual can be 100% sure of. For example, when a person is in pain, he’s 100% sure that he is in pain.

    • I think then you are an agnostic atheist; and there is such a thing as a gnostic atheist. Dawkins, Hitchens, and others certainly claim that you can be 100% sure there is not god and that to think there is, is lunacy. Most decent atheists I have met are of the same mind as you, whereas the gnostic ones are just as annoying as the maddest of fundamentalists.

  2. if you’re going to use Aquinas, how can you leave out his natural theology (and the methodology he uses to get there q&a) – God’s signature found throughout all of creation? the last statement is disturbing – faith ultimately rests on the acceptance of revealed truth? … sounds like neo-scholasticism to me! i’m going to suggest avery dulles s.j. book “The Assurance of Things Hoped For: A Theology of Christian Faith.”

    • Leaving out Aquinas’s natural theology can be overlooked because one does not need to say everything that could be said on a given topic in a blog article. If this were a dissertation, however, I would agree with you on that point.

      As far as faith goes, what is wrong with saying that it ultimately rests on the acceptance of divine revelation? Would you have faith if you did not accept divine revelation at all? You can have other reasons for accepting that revelation, but if you don’t accept the revealed doctrine then ultimately you don’t have faith, now do you?

      It’s not as though faith in the real presence in the Eucharist ultimately depends on anyone’s ability to deduce that truth from other a priori principles or a set of contingent empirical facts. So what is wrong with saying that Christian Faith ultimately depends on one’s acceptance of divine revelation? Name someone who’s come to these conclusions on their own and believed them without accepting divine revelation.

      I’m perplexed at your response…

    • Kelly, acceptance of divine revelation is fundamental to the Christian faith — that is the only point being made here. Are you taking it to be saying more that that?

      If Neo-Scholatics teach the same thing, then I’d have to agree with them, and with the Pope, who teaches the same thing as well. So… what exactly is your point?

  3. Yes, perhaps this was not the best way to introduce myself on a blog. Please forgive my abruptness. I am a single mom to a child with special needs whose father hasn’t seen him in weeks and his car broke, which means I have to do the extra driving. But what is mostly impairing my judgment at the moment is the fact that I am finishing up my first year of grad school (pray for me!), and I’m currently on week seven of Spanish immersion as well. Normally I don’t read blogs or bother to comment on them if I do. However, I’ve recently re-connected with a childhood friend who apparently thinks very highly of you, and for that reason I felt compelled to respond. In hindsight, and after spending about 6 hours in a car today, I realize that although I critiqued Neo-Scholasticism, I did so assuming you know why it is not good theology.
    First of all, after I posted I noticed that you openly claim to be doing apologetics. Generally speaking, people who do this kind of theology tend to adopt defensive stances (ie Neo-Scholasticism) when they feel attacked by outside forces (secularism, atheism, and so on) who do not accept or agree with them. However, it seems to me that building bridges (or at least trying to) may be more of a productive approach towards doing theology if indeed your primary concern is for the salvation of souls, which I believe it is.
    I need to be focusing my thoughts elsewhere so I’ll be brief, and I hope you understand. I’m not sure what the motivating force behind your post is. Are you preaching to the choir (your own community), or are you trying to defend faith in God – which according to your final statement is according to revealed truth. God reveals Himself in several ways, as I’m sure you already know: doctrinal (tradition, magisterium), experiential, personal, and historical. There are many factors at hand, and they are meant to complement each other. You seem to be supporting the Propositional model, which has its greatest weakness in that not only does it oversimplify reality, but it doesn’t point beyond itself. Sadly our Church is extremely polarized, and positions that defend anything (Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Christ, etc.) solely via one model/method are unbalanced and mistaken.
    My comment about Aquinas’ NT was simply to counterpoint your final comment, and it seems appropriate given that you’ve chosen to have him be the website’s patron saint. St. Thomas Aquinas’ own point of God’s signature being found throughout history proves your closing statement to be false. It doesn’t need to be a dissertation to thoughtfully consider this point, but simply a well-balanced essay instead.

    • Hi, Kelly! Nice to meet you. I’m James, the one who wrote the article.

      The blog receives readers of all sorts, atheist, protestants, Catholics, and other ordinary folks who don’t put too much stock in things religious, but might have a question about something I said. A lot of the articles I write are more directed at one audience than another and some of my statements anticipate certain types of reactions. That said, on the world wide web, one cannot anticipate every possible response.

      Your feed back is very helpful.

      Aquinas’s point that God’s signature in creation can be used to make a solid case for God’s existence, although I find that most atheists are not satisfied with those sorts of arguments. If I only argue along those lines, those people will disregard the blog completely. The line I included on “God of the Gaps” was intended to placate that portion of my audience.

      However the statement I made was about the Christian faith, not just the existence of God. Jews, just to name one group who are not Christian, can find vestiges of God (any human being can), but to bring them to Christ, one needs to turn to scripture. One could also turn to the example of martyrs, saints, charitable acts, etc… But ultimately, in order to become a Christian, one must accept divine revelation — Scripture, Magisterium, Tradition.

      The revealed truth of the Christ’s two natures, his divine personhood, his being the Second Person of the Trinity — these are things that we only know through revelation, and so our faith as Christians ultimately depends on both receiving and accepting that revelation.

      Here is an example from Aquinas’s treatise on Creation in the Summa (I.46.2 sc):

      “The articles of faith cannot be proved demonstratively, because faith is of things “that appear not” (Hebrews 11:1). … that the world began, is an article of faith; for we say, “I believe in one God,” etc. And again, Gregory says (Hom. i in Ezech.), that Moses prophesied of the past, saying, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth”: in which words the newness of the world is stated. Therefore the newness of the world is known only by revelation; and therefore it cannot be proved demonstratively.”

      Now in the next article St Thomas goes on to argue that we can still prove that God created the world (so there are a lot of subtleties involved… can’t get into them here), but in his continued response in the article just quoted, he adds:

      “By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist, as was said above of the mystery of the Trinity (32, 1)…. But the divine will can be manifested by revelation, on which faith rests. Hence that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science. And it is useful to consider this, lest anyone, presuming to demonstrate what is of faith, should bring forward reasons that are not cogent, so as to give occasion to unbelievers to laugh, thinking that on such grounds we believe things that are of faith.”

      I had this article from St Thomas in mind when I made the statement you called in to question. Thanks for calling me on it though, because it gave me the opportunity to add what the Angelic Doctor has to say on these matters. In short, what he says does not prove my last statement wrong. The context expressed in the statement I made is Christian faith, not simply proof for the existence of God.

      We are in agreement, though, that God’s fingerprints are all over creation.

      Sorry for the lengthy answer. I’m not saying that this is a comprehensive response, or that it doesn’t even open more questions.


  4. also, it would be helpful to know who writes any given entry, so that someone responding would know what approach to use (philosophical, moral, etc.) in an attempt to have a productive dialogue. these are very important conversations – it is the stuff of life!

    • Very good point, and it’s a problem, which I can’t explain now, because it’s actually more complicated than one might think. It has to do with the way WordPress configures things. I did not know about these things when I started the blog or before I started adding authors. It would take a lot of work to everything up at this point, although it might actually be worth it.

      I think I just need to manually insert the author’s name at the beginning of each article. I won’t explain the system I used up to now as an attempt to make it clear who wrote what, because obviously that is not working. Here are a few things that might help clarify.

      • Fr Jason Smith normally writes on Saturday, under the heading Spiritual Lights (Fr Jason Smith).
      • Fr Jose LaBoy normally writes on Sunday, under the heading The Theologian (Fr Jose LaBoy).
      • Fr Joseph Tham sends me articles weekly. I publish them at some point during the week under the heading Bioethics.

      The rest of the articles are written by me, unless clearly stated otherwise — e.g., when it is a reblog.

      I always include a picture of the author in the article, unless I wrote the article.

      I hope that helps. Thanks again for mentioning this. I’ll do a better job to clarify these things in the future. God bless! And you’re in my prayers!

  5. thank you, James, for your thoughtful response.

    Just like you, I’m a Catholic who also holds deep and abiding respect for doctrine/tradition/magesterium and so on. At the same time, my critique only tried to bring attention in the other ways God has revealed Himself: history, personal and experiental. They co-exist and are meant to compliment each other. In the right ways and times, creeds are one of the wonderful ways to build church, for example BEM. Also, remember that tradition and doctrine slowly evolve over time, they cannot be a thing unto themselves. Too high of a Christology tends to leave people out, and since we strive towards the realization of God’s Kingdom on earth, I know this isn’t what we want. After all, we’re in this together.

    Thanks for your explination of who writes what. That helps.

    Last but not least, thanks for your prayers. You are in mine as well.

    God Bless.

    p.s. is there a way to get spellcheck on this? i’m lost without it! 🙂

    • No need to spell check, because people are pretty lenient about that on blogs. As the blog manager, I have the luxury of editing. Other than that, there’s no spellcheck — not on WP, at least.

      I think we understand each other’s points, then. And I agree with you. We have to avoid excesses and extreems because they can lead to error. Tradition in the Church has a lot to do with correcting those excesses and learning from error. It is an ongoing process.

      Thank you for your prayers and God bless!

      (By the way, pardon my ignorance, but what’s a BEM?)

  6. World Council of Churches produced the so called Lima document –> Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. All Christian denominations (spellcheck!!) as far as I know belong to it with the exception of Menonites and Catholics. We’ve been invited of course, but I think the hesitation is the fear of papal authority, although it wouldn’t officially diminish anything. It would, however, make certain conversations unavoidable. Thankfully, we’re part of the sub-committee Faithand Order.

    This cursor is being stubborn, which tells me I need to go back to my work. Peace be with you.


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