Agnosticism & Atheism

May 21, 2007 at 12:00 am 10 comments

Question MarkPromoting science, logic and reason as the best tools for understanding the world and fighting against the negative effects religions have on society are endeavors common to atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, naturalists, brights, skeptics and most secular humanists. There is a rather loosely defined online community of these individuals and they’ve been arguing since long before this blog was conceived about the meaning of the word “atheist”, whether atheists can be fundamentalists or extremists, what is the right way to promote science and reason, and what these different terms mean. This is my take.

First, let’s look at the terms “atheism” and “agnosticism” and what they might mean. “Atheism”, in popular use and many dictionaries, is the outright denial of the existence of any god, i.e. an atheist is a person who’s absolutely sure that there is no god. However, this is not how self-described atheists use the term. They use it to mean “lacking belief in god”, thereby including many who consider themselves agnostics. They support this by pointing out the etymology of the word, which stems from the greek “theos”, god, and the prefix “a-”, which means without. However, many feel that this is faulty logic. They, quite correctly, point out that the etymology of a word not necessarily denotes its current meaning. They might also point out the use of the word to mean any person that has a faith differing from the speaker’s. However, this line of thought doesn’t necessarily support the view that atheism is the positive belief in no god, because if the current usage is what defines a word, it can be convincingly argued that “atheism” has come to mean “lacking belief in a god” simply by atheists using the term in that way.

More helpful than looking at the etymology and usage of the word is to look at its semantics. All definitions deal with belief; none of them necessarily entail a knowledge of any sort. We can also point out that there are three possible answers to the question “do you believe in a god?”, yes, no and “the question is meaningless”. If theism is the first answer, for symmetry atheism could be the second, but then we lack a term for the third. Alternatively, some people have come up with the terms strong atheism and weak atheism. Strong atheism is the positive belief that there is no god, whereas weak atheism is simply the lack of belief. These terms come closer to describing what people actually believe. It follows that, if we are to use the term “atheism” without any qualifiers, we should use it to mean weak atheism, because it is the broadest (all strong atheists are necessarily weak atheists as well). It also its into the symmetry, where theism means belief in a god and atheism means the lack thereof.

Agnosticism is a claim about knowledge rather than belief. Agnostics claim not to have knowledge. They have also been associated with the stronger position that it is impossible to have knowledge about this particular thing. The term originated with Thomas Huxley, who describes it like this:

When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis” — had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. […]

So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic”. It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society, to show that I, too, had a tail, like the other foxes.

He combined the greek word “gnosis”, which means knowledge, with the “a-” prefix that means without, thereby professing his lack of knowledge about the subject. Huxley explains what he means by it:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

This is certainly compatible with weak atheism. Weak atheists do not pretend they are certain of conclusions that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. Some self-described agnostics will of course object to Huxley’s use of the word “faith” to describe agnosticism and hold that, as the first sentence proposes, it is not a faith or creed but a method. Others will once again say that the origins of a term are unimportant and insist that the current usage is the correct usage. But the current opinion is that agnosticism is a third position, a middle point on the question “do you believe in a god?” This is inconsistent with both the way Huxley used the term, and the way agnostics use it. The third option on the question “do you believe in a god?”, if there is a third option, is not “I don’t know” but rather “the question is meaningless”. Perhaps we need to find a term for those who think the question is meaningless or meaningful but impossible to know. We must conclude that “I don’t know” is a claim about knowledge, and therefore can apply to atheists and theists alike. So, agnosticism is a claim about knowledge; the other option is “I do know”, which is what many theists and some atheists claim.

I can then call myself an agnostic atheist. There are some gods that I am absolutely, positively sure do not exist, either because they’re logically impossible or because they would leave evidence. Other gods I am not so sure about, either because they would not leave evidence or because the evidence they would leave is of such a kind that it is consistent but not conclusive with the evidence we do have.

– Simen

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. HeIsSailing  |  May 21, 2007 at 12:05 am

    Hello Simen, and welcome to the agnosticatheism site!
    I was unaware of Huxley’s definition of agnosticism, but it most closely describes how I think. I consider myself agnostic, in the sense that I don’t think there is any way to know if there is a divine presence in the universe.
    Also, the evidence of a creator of some sort does me little good. If tomorrow, I came across irrefutable evidence of a god, (gods, divine presense, creator, designer, whatever…) I would not know what to do with that information. OK, there is a god – but I still know that the Bible is mythology, so where does that information leave me? Absolutely nowhere.
    I am agnostic – there may very well be a god, but there is just no way to know one way or the other. So it is best to rely on what is tangible here in this mortal realm.

  • 2. agnosticatheist  |  May 21, 2007 at 12:09 am

    I can then call myself an agnostic atheist. There are some gods that I am absolutely, positively sure do not exist, either because they’re logically impossible or because they would leave evidence.

    I 100% agree. I would definitely say that the God of Judaism, Christianity, & Islam as described by the Bible & Koran absolutely does NOT exist. It is logically impossible for this “God” to be perfect, merciful, compassionate, & kind yet be jealous, angry, promote evil, & commit the atrocities ascribed to him. The God described in these books is far from perfect but really have very human characteristics. Hmmm…. I wonder why?

  • 3. Heather  |  May 21, 2007 at 12:15 am

    **The God described in these books is far from perfect but really have very human characteristics. Hmmm…. I wonder why?**
    I’ve always found that one of the dangers in saying that man is made in God’s image and likeness is that man too often looks to him/herself to see what God is like. Which is why I think why God is so tribal in much of the Old Testament — God was just like the people back then, only omnipotent.

  • 4. Pedro Timóteo  |  May 21, 2007 at 5:39 am

    “Omnipotent”? What about Judges 1:19? 🙂

  • 5. Epiphanist  |  May 21, 2007 at 6:05 am

    “Of all the senseless babble I have ever had occasion to read, the demonstrations of these philosophers who undertake to tell us all about the nature of God would be the worst, if they were not surpassed by the still greater absurdities of the philosophers who try to prove that there is no God. ”
    Interesting man that Huxley, thanks for the introduction.

  • 6. Simen  |  May 21, 2007 at 9:46 am

    Heather said:

    I’ve always found that one of the dangers in saying that man is made in God’s image and likeness is that man too often looks to him/herself to see what God is like. Which is why I think why God is so tribal in much of the Old Testament — God was just like the people back then, only omnipotent.

    I think there’s been a steady abstractification (is that even a word?) of gods at least from the earliest written records of mythology. Early on, gods were just like people imagined themselves to be, if they’d been that powerful: a band of extremely exaggerated, extremely powerful people living where ever they themselves couldn’t reach (e.g. in the sky, atop a great mountain).

    Now, God is so abstract that anything can pass for “god”: love, the universe, some great old dude in the sky.

  • 7. beepbeepitsme  |  May 21, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    A word like “atheist” has its roots in the word “theist.” In other words, there is no need to describe what an atheist is except for the fact that we define what a theist is.

    So, to simplify it I look at it this way. If a theist is a person who believes in the existence of a god or gods, then an atheist is a person who doesn’t.

    The dictionary definition of “theist” is this:- “noun
    1. one who believes in the existence of a god or gods ”

    I am somewhat amused as to why the opposite of this then becomes – “noun
    1. someone who denies the existence of god ”

    Perhaps it is because dictionaries have a theistic bias. 😉

  • 8. Dan Barnett  |  May 21, 2007 at 10:26 pm

    Pedro, I’m not trying to start a fight, but using one verse to make a huge argument is a far cry. Who is to say that it was God’s will for Judah to defeat them?

    Beepdude, I think you read into the definition a little too much. To not believe is to deny. What is the difference? Do you really feel that the whole Christian world is out to get you? Is it a big conspiracy that the Christians twisted the dictionary just so you would look wrong?

    I do enjoy watching the discussions on this site. It gives me insight into why some of you believe what you do. I appreciate your welcoming of Christians to participate in it, Aa.

  • 9. Simen  |  May 22, 2007 at 2:07 am

    I very much doubt dictionaries in general have a bias that isn’t present in the population at large. If the population at large is theistic, their vocabulary is likely to have a “theistic bias”, as you call it.

    The usual definition is “disbelief”, which can include both belief in the opposite and lack of belief.

  • 10. Jersey  |  January 18, 2008 at 3:55 am

    I think perhaps 99.99% of the gods we claim of existence can’t really be shown to exist or not. Buddha, on the other hand, while some may worship him as a deity-type figure, we know for a fact he never claimed deity-ship, that all he was was human.

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