Tim Crane: Atheism and Agnosticism Don’t Offer Positive Doctrines

Tim Crane, The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 20-21.

Atheism and agnosticism are genuinely distinct positions. Neither of them, however, offers any positive substantial doctrines about what the world is like or how we should live. Some people are bothered by this: by the fact that atheism, so described, is a negative position. A significant collection of essays by atheist philosophers is advertised as recommending atheism as a “profoundly fulfilling and moral way of life,” as a contrast to those who think of it as a negative outlook on life. In his short introduction to atheism, Julian Baggini considers the view that atheism is just “parasitic on religion and by its very nature negative” but rightly concludes that this view involves a fallacy, the result of drawing too much out of the etymology of the word “atheism.” He goes on to propose a “positive” version of atheism. But I cannot see the objection to negative views as such; if I am against imprisonment without trial and torture, then my belief is negative in the above sense. It is parasitic on the existence of torture and imprisonment without trial. And even if torture were wiped out, this fact would be “parasitic” on the previous existence of torture. How can this be an objection to my belief?

3 thoughts on “Tim Crane: Atheism and Agnosticism Don’t Offer Positive Doctrines

  1. It is said that atheism is the negation of theism, but atheism is not a negative outlook on life. The atheist just rejects the theist claim of a god. Atheism has no doctrine as it is not a religion but atheistic religions such as Buddhism and Humanism do offer “doctrines” that are substantial to those who follow them.

    Of course to the believer, the non-believer is a party pooper 🙂


    Liked by 1 person

    1. And *no one* likes a party pooper.

      Great points. Negation does not equal “negative” or “pessimistic.”


  2. Perhaps that “no positive doctrine” objection amounts to the flip-side misunderstanding of religion as “a belief system.”

    Religion is, as all our religious studies teachers will tell us, a lot more than “a belief system.” It involves a whole complex of practices and relationships and significant symbols and identity-markers and so on. The relationship of all that stuff to “belief” is not at all simple or direct. Nevertheless, people persistently think of and talk about religion as “people’s belief systems” and persistently talk about all the complex cultural phenomena that constitute religion as if they were one-variable functions of “belief.”

    So perhaps the objection that atheism doesn’t offer any “positive doctrine” amounts to a statement of bewilderment about what complex of practices and relationships and significant symbols and identity-markers and so on would “follow” from atheism.

    Like – what holidays would atheists have, then? That kind of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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