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Atheism and Agnosticism

August 11th, 2007

I have always understood these terms under their common definitions: atheism is a belief that god does not exist, and agnosticism is the view that we do not have enough evidence to state positively whether a god or gods exist or not. In short, that atheists say there is no god, while agnostics say they cannot accept nor reject any theories about god. These meanings are reflected in the common culture and language; for example, when you say that you are “agnostic” about a certain issue, it means that you have no convictions either way.

However, in listening to various atheists over the past year or so, I was surprised to hear agnosticism defined as “someone who believes that everything is inherently unknowable.” I have always seen myself as an agnostic, and yet I do not agree with that view at all; while one could make an argument for such a worldview, I consider it metaphysical navel-gazing, and irrelevant to practical experience, just like asking yourself “is reality real?” I do not see that mattering either way.

It would seem that many, if not most people who call themselves atheists are people whom I would regard as agnostics. The distinction is blurred because both are correct–depending upon what branch of atheism or agnosticism that you subscribe to. Atheism, for example, has two major branches: strong (positive) atheism, in which there is a positive belief that god does not exist, and weak (negative) atheism, in which uncertainty about theistic truths are emphasized. Agnosticism also has two varieties: the type which closely matches weak atheism, in which uncertainty is key–call this “strong agnosticism”–and the other type, mentioned above, where the validity of knowledge itself is questioned–call that “weak agnosticism.”

I myself reject the navel-gazing version, or weak agnosticism, as the definitive or representative form of agnosticism, because of its practical irrelevancy and (I believe) because it is far less common. At least, it may be recognized as a philosophical truism, but at the same time disregarded as pragmatically meaningless; a person may acknowledge “weak agnosticism” and yet still ascribe to “strong agnosticism” or even “strong atheism.” Because of this, I see what I refer to as “weak agnosticism” as being somewhat irrelevant, a thought-experiment off-shoot that applies less to personal beliefs and more to exercises in academic epistemology.

The problem is, many people seem married to the term they have chosen. Penn Jillette, for example, insists on atheism as including any non-religious people, including strong agnostics; he discarded the word “agnostic” as simply referring to the navel-gazers. I, on the other hand, have always associated the word “atheist” with someone who believes firmly in the non-existence of god, and see my own uncertainty best defined by the word “agnostic.”

I prefer my definition for a reason beyond simply being used to it: my demarkation gives clearly separate terms to describe the most commonly-expressed ideas outside of faith in a specific religious belief. When talking about religious beliefs, we usually refer to those who believe in god, those who believe god does not exist, and those who are not certain. It seems logical to me to reserve one commonly-used term for each of these states. Defining atheism to include the latter two and agnosticism to the navel-gazing seems to me to lend to confusion. If the term “atheist” covered both god-deniers and the uncertain, then one would have to spend a good deal more time explaining what your exact views are.

Nevertheless, I have gathered the impression that religious people tend to blur the terms not because of the finer niceties involved, but rather because they consider any non-belief to be of one general category; to them, there are those who believe, and those who do not–those who believe and have faith, and those who do not. It makes little difference as to why people do not believe.

Once I heard an evangelist (I forget which one) use a definition now common amongst religious people: “an agnostic is an atheist without the faith in his convictions.” This expression uses the definitions of the terms which I prefer. However, not only do I find this sentiment to be inaccurate, I find it insulting: it suggests that I do not believe what I believe, and the reason is because I am weak or lacking somehow.

I cannot understand those who positively believe that there is no god any more than I can understand the religious; in both cases, it seems to me that the belief is based upon “faith.” The (strong/positive) atheist is just as strong in “faith” as the religious person; neither has proof, only belief, but each believes their faith to be equivalent to unquestionable truth. To me, they are indistinguishable. In fact, I have heard strong-atheists express almost exactly that sentiment: they note that most religious people disbelieve in all religions except their own, and as such, are atheists in all but that they still cling to only one of the myriad religions out there. Strong-atheists differ only in that the disbelieve in just one more religion than religious people do. This makes a great deal of sense to me.

The only worldview that makes sense to me is to believe that god is a possibility, but not a certainty. To acknowledge the fallibility of humans and human beliefs is, to me, the most obvious of all conclusions. We have been wrong countless times before, and continue to be wrong about so many things. To think that we could be absolutely and unquestionably correct about the greatest mystery and most fundamental truths about the universe–given that all our knowledge derives from ancient mythology and purely non-empirical evidence–seems both arrogant and comically nonsensical. It strikes me that we should accept what we “know” as simply being the most current theory, and be ready to believe in whatever new facts come to our attention–rather than simply clinging to old, disproved facts, simply because we don’t want to believe that we can be wrong about something so important.

To me, anyone unwilling to accept new information simply because it differs with what was handed down to them is nonsensical and irrational. But that encroaches upon the next topic I would like to discuss: “faith.”

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  1. Justin
    August 11th, 2007 at 16:10 | #1

    I would strongly recommend reading The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. He addresses much of what you mentioned here. Most of the ideas in his book are not new, but he explains them, and explains Atheism, about as well as anybody ever has.

    Also, if I remember what Penn Jillette said about the differences between atheism and agnosticism, his main point is that those two words describe different things. One describes knowledge and the other refers to faith.

    Penn said on his podcast that an agnostic is someone who believes that we cannot know if god exists. From what I remember, he maintains that, if you’re an agnostic, you still have to answer the belief question. Whether we can know or not has nothing to do with whether you believe or not. It’s possible, to be an agnostic and still believe (through faith) in some version of a god. However, Penn, Dawkins, and the rest of the recent batch of atheist authors argue that anybody who does not have a belief in god is, by definition, an atheist.

  2. August 14th, 2007 at 11:30 | #2

    I used to sign up to the “Atheist is a kind of Faith” idea, until I read somewhere this quote: “Atheism is as much a religion as not collecting stamps is a hobby.” This seems like a well summed up counter to this idea. Of course we do have fanatical atheists, but then you can have people to be fanatical about anything. Calling all those things religions will just dilute the word into nothingness.

    There are also many theists that are happy in believing that religions other than theirs might have some truth into them. So the view of theists as “Atheists -1” seems only to apply to our beloved religious fundies.

    Myself, I couldn’t care less. I used to call myself an agnostic, due to my “not caring” behavior, but I’ve come to redefine myself as atheist. Religion can be good to certain people, but it makes no difference to my personal life.

  3. Luis
    August 14th, 2007 at 14:16 | #3

    Justin: yeah, I should get that. Maybe I’ll order by Amazon this week.

    Claus: Your quote leaves matters somewhat vague. It seems to express the idea that most Atheists are not ardent in their beliefs, but does that mean they don’t proselytize, or does it mean that they don’t believe so strongly? In which case, they would be “weak” atheists.

    But if they believe that god does not exist, then that is “faith” in the sense that it is a belief founded not by conclusive, empirical evidence but rather just as much on blind belief as religious people do.

    Can you explain the distinction as you see it in more detail?

  4. Eric
    August 14th, 2007 at 23:22 | #4

    “The (strong/positive) atheist is just as strong in “faith” as the religious person; neither has proof, only belief, but each believes their faith to be equivalent to unquestionable truth.”

    Just a quick comment on this quote from your essay.
    You have misunderstood atheism in this sense. It is true that religious people maintain faith and believe in their own unquestionable truth, however the same cannot be said for atheists. Atheists do have a certain amount of faith, though it is never unquestionable…in fact, that is one of the key elements of atheism, the fact that things do change and ideas can be wrong. Atheists are open to changing their beliefs based on the facts on hand and are more than willing to alter the beliefs if a new fact is discovered and proven. For instance, if scientifically testable proof of god were to be discovered, an atheist would have no problem adjusting to this. If, however discovery after discovery point in a direction away from god, a religious person maintains their current viewpoint and alters facts to fit their beliefs. I hope that makes some sense. And yes, definitely read The God Delusion, great book.

  5. Luis
    August 15th, 2007 at 00:22 | #5

    Eric: well, this is kind of my point: there are two kinds of atheism, the kind which denies a god, and the kind which says it doubts a god but doesn’t know for sure. The confusion between types that you yourself are demonstrating makes my point for differentiating between them by using the term “atheist” for those who believe there is no god and “agnostic” for those who doubt but will not decide either way.

    You, like Claus (I believe) are referring to people that I call “agnostic” in that they doubt but won’t make a final decision–you call them “atheists” and by that token misunderstand me even when I lay out specifically how the terms apply to people.

    You seem to reject the idea that “strong” atheists exist, which I think is a mistake. They do, and therefore the term “atheist” better applies to them, as that is how the general public refers to them; by the same token, “agnostic” refers to the person who accepts new data and remains open to the idea that they could be wrong.

    In short, we are talking about the exact same thing but are using different words for it, thus the apparent disagreement where none in fact exists.

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