What Are Agnostics?

Agnostics are just those who are afraid to use The “A” Word.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Gordon

    ZOMGitsCriss gave a great illustration of the difference when talking about Dexter. Atheists don’t pray in the same way they don’t write letters to Santa.

  • Patrick

    “Atheism” and “agnosticism” as terms perform two functions. One is to denote specific philosophical positions. The other is to denote social identification. The latter is a lot messier than the former.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM.

    Now Daniel, you’re being unfair to agnostics. Just because they’re spineless, wishy-washy wimps unwilling to stand for what they don’t believe in is no reason to accuse them of cowardice.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    I’d say that this isn’t quite true. Rather, there seem to be two classes of agnostics:

    1) the kind that you mentioned, those who are using the word “agnostic” as sort of a “lite” version of the “atheist” label.

    2) Those who think that it is problematic to disprove claims about the existence of deities, or at least certain deities. Such agnostics include the man who coined the term “agnostic,” T. H. Huxley himself, and Bertrand Russel. John S. Wilkins also qualifies, and he has argued that the idea of agnosticism as “weak atheism” is problematic. (If you do not know, then how can you coherently say that you do not believe?)

  • Beth

    Your statement about agnostics is right up there with the declaration that atheists deny god because they hate them. It’s wrong and it denigrates and dismisses the actual motivations of those who choose such labels for themselves.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Your statement about agnostics is right up there with the declaration that atheists deny god because they hate them. It’s wrong and it denigrates and dismisses the actual motivations of those who choose such labels for themselves.

      No, it’s just a polemical teaser for a much more nuanced article. Please check out the case I make in the post I linked to!

  • Steve Schuler

    “Agnostics are just those who are afraid to use The “A” Word.”

    That’s just a plain silly thing to say, Daniel. Although there may be some specific instances where that statement might express some bit of truth, to use it as a blanket statement applicable to anybody who does not self-identify as an ‘Atheist’, such as myself, is very far from the truth.

    To borrow from Sam Harris:

    “In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

    I know, language is messy and context makes all the difference in it’s usage and meaning. Am I ‘atheistic’? Sure! Am I an ‘Atheist’? Not even close. Everybody knows that in the aftermath of the ‘Dawkins Revolution’ (think Southpark) that ‘Atheist’ is synonymous with ‘Asshole’!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      That’s just a plain silly thing to say, Daniel. Although there may be some specific instances where that statement might express some bit of truth, to use it as a blanket statement applicable to anybody who does not self-identify as an ‘Atheist’, such as myself, is very far from the truth.

      It’s plain silly to make any simple statement without backing it up. But I wrote a whole post backing up the assertion and it’s much less silly than the unnuanced remark in this post. So, read it and let me know what you think of my fuller idea!

    • Steve Schuler

      Dano!

      I had actually already read your previous article and had found it, as per usual, substantive, thoughtful, and well articulated. I should have included that information in my initial comment to you, as I actually regarded this “unnuanced” “polemical teaser” to be just that; an invitation to read a previous article of yours dealing with the subject matter in some depth.

      My response to you, however, was framed as if your statement was a provocative stand-alone invitation to comment, so your subsequent challenge to me was well warranted.

      Since then I have also read Eric’s and PZ’s articles on the matter (thank No-God for hyperlinks!), time that I consider well spent. On my foray into PZ’s lair I did pick up this gem dropped by PZ Hisself:

      “I have a tangent in that talk where I deplore Dictionary Atheists, going so far as to say I hate those guys, because they’re so superficial.”

      It’s bits like this that make me think of PZ, somewhat endearingly, as “The Bill O’Reilly of Atheism”.

      By the way, please don’t take me too seriously. You can be sure that I don’t!

      Peace Be Wtih Thee, Bro.

      Steve

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Okay, but I’m not PZ. As I think you’ve acknowledged, my polemicism above was pure teaser.

    • Steve Schuler

      Roger That!

  • Erp

    I think it a bit unusual to describe Thomas Huxley as afraid.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      HA! Fair enough. I’m thinking modern day agnostics.

  • laurentweppe

    To borrow from Sam Harris

    Aka: To quote the charlatan who’s been peddling debunked cultural determinism for years…

    Frankly, there are better people to borrow from.

    • Steve Schuler

      WHOM?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Aka: To quote the charlatan who’s been peddling debunked cultural determinism for years…

      Can you be much more specific? I find your thesis interesting but puzzling.

    • Laurent Weppe

      Ok; here comes my long “Why Sam Harris is a charatan who peddles in cultural determinism who should be shunned by every civilized people before he ends up endorsing Caroline Bachmann” argument:
      ***
      ***
      In a relatively recent article about the “ground zero mosque”, he said said, and I quote, that Islam is “different from other faith

      Note that we leave here the domain of usual religion bashing enjoyed by New Atheists: Harris takes one religion, single it, and claim as the core of his argument that Islam is ontologically different from any other religions, which not only is a lie (more on that latter, but let me say now that copying the fake erudition of the Pamela Geller school of pretentiousness is not a valid argument, even when used by someone with a PhD), but also necessary implies that it makes Muslims ontologically different from other religious groups (otherwise, what would be the point of saying that this religion is “different from other faith” if it’s followers were similar to the followers of other faiths?).
      *
      He then proclaim that not only Islam is different from other religions because of the contents of the Quran, but also that the content of the Bible is irrelevant to any analysis one might have about Judaism and Christianity and that noticing the similarities between violences -either terroristic or state sponsored- done in the name of the other abrahamic religions and violences done in the name of Islam is “simply not thinking honestly” [sic]. Yep, saying that violent fundies of one abrahamic denomination tend to behave like violent fundies of another abrahamic denomination is “simply not thinking honestly” according to Sam Harris: proud bearer of the Gold Double Standard.
      *
      The core of such boldly dishonest statements is to “otherise” (stupid socio-political jargon) one social group, to pretend that part of their cultural background (religion) is so alien to the cultural background of the rest of society that it makes the human beings who are part of that group inherently alien to “the rest of us”.

      And not merely alien in the “They’re a lost cause for the Wine Industry” sense: alien in the “they’re an hostile group which needs to be forcibly made submissive for our security”: most of his article is the tired argument that violence is inherent to Islam and Islam alone, with the implied conclusion that therefore Muslims are to bear a specific and deserved stigma.
      ***
      ***
      Now, Harris is not merely a charlatan, he’s also gutless, so as usual his writing style is filled to the brim with annoying lexical arabesques: just like he tried to disguise his nuke’em all fantasies behind tangled circonvolution, he tries here to disguise his blatantly racist remarks and pro-dictatorship agenda (his article was written to expres his support of the “fuck the first and fourteenth amendments” religious right when they tried to stop the building of an Islamic center somewhere between a sex shop and the WTC) behind a bunch of safewords “At this point in human history“, “the Challenge we all face, Muslims and non-Muslims alike“, but I’ll be blunt: this is the exactly the kind of lexical precaution used by far-right activists and politicians when they’re not backed by enough firepower to openly claim “We’ll kill all that will not crawl beneath our feet like dogs“: these precautions are meant to obfuscate the wickedness of Harris’ thoughts with a smokescreen of faked subtelty intended to make the ordinary reader give him the benefit of the doubt while the islamophobes immediatelly identify Harris as one of them (which actually makes his long essay about self-defense filled with “Don’t give sociopaths the benefit of the doubt, don’t trusts the sociopaths, do not let basic civility let a sociopath take control of your moves“, etc… involontary yet incredibly funny, in a How to Succesfully Cook Meat with Professor Hannibal Lecter kind of way).
      ***
      ***
      But this article is merely one exemple of Harris’ shameless wallowing in cultural determinism: in 2005, he also claimed (in an article called “Bombing our illusions”) that Muslims, and once again I quote: “must tolerate, advocate, and even practice ethnic profiling”: He’s not even trying to put the stigma on Muslim believers: apparently, having Muslim ancestors is enough to be suspect: you never know, maybe Atheists with Muslim parents assimilated dangerous sharioactive particles when they drank their mothers’ milk. He defends such authoritarian demands with -once again- cultural determinism, which he defends with a single claim “Where are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers?”: I know that violence in Tibet, where angry monks set fire to shops owned by Han chinese and lynched han immigrants made the headlines in the western press after the publication of his article, but he ought to have done a little homework before claiming that Tibetan Budhists were the epitome of non-violence: Sino-Tibetan violence have been happening for decades, and his big claim -that Buddhism cannot so easily provoke violence- falls flat, even discounting previous cases of buddhist mass violence (there are ten million dead Dungans killed by order of the Tibetan Buddhist Qing dynasty who may have objected to Harris claims, if they not been, you know, dead).
      *
      Not only that, his demands of racial profilling done on Muslims by Muslims themselves is a variation of the Glenn-Beckian “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies” demand, which is abject for two reaons: first: it’s a standard applied only to the boogeyman du jour: no one will demand that mainstream christians or jews tolerate, advocate, and even practice fucking ethnic profiling of their own, and second, every time such demands are made, no matter how much the target of such demands may prove their loyalty, it’s never enough: a big historical trend is that every time a population is accused of being the fifth column: no matter how much they demonstrate, their loyalty, they will be proclaimed guilty by their identity.
      *
      So you’ve got the advocacy of a liberticide policy (racial policy) based upon a debunked claim (cultural determinism) which he backs with at best willful ignorance and at worst blatant lies: how can one witness such despicable claims and not be revulsed? Especially since when you take the rest of Harris writtings, you can see the themes seen in these two articles -that is his cultural determinism and bigotry and his love for dictatorial practices- emmerging again, although not always as condensed.
      *
      So, cultural determinism is at the core of his arguments, is used to justify the liberticide policies he advocates, and is the foundation of some of his bestsellers, not counting his speaking engagements: and what’s the word for someone making money by selling debunked lies to people? A charlatan: hence, a charlatan peddling in cultural determinism.
      ***
      ***
      Now the reason I am so sensitive to Harris’ deceitful bullshit comes from the fact that I’m French, and France have two things that the US does not have:
      *
      First, unlike its american counterpart the french far-right tend, most of the time, to tone down its link with the christian fundies, in fact, for a few years, its leaders have proclaimed that they were the Real True Paragons of Secularism™: an enormous lie, of course, but it shows how Harris’s writting style push the wrong buttons: Harris is reusing memes of the Christian Right, and then gets a pass by playing his “I’m just an unapologetic atheist” card : in France, the Far-Right uses exactly the same memes, and then demands to get a pass because they are self-proclaimed “Protector of the Secular Republic Against the Muslim Hordes”: the justification varies a little, but in both case the same bigotry lies beneath the proclaimed high-minded adhesions to rationalism and secularism.
      *
      Second, Just like we have here a leftist version of the Tea Party, we have the left-wing version of Objectivists: unlike the American randoids who worship selfishness, these “left-wing quasi-objectivists” value selflessness, alright, but postulate that 99% of the population is just too stupid to understand its intrinsic value, and that it is needed to have a well meaning intelligentsia to keep civilization from collapsing (they also see themselves as the true heirs of Socrates and Plato, but since I despise these two guys, I’m happy to let smugs bastards claim the inheritance). While they tend to be eager religion bashers, they do not see religion as an evil force to be rooted out of the world like New Atheists: they just see it as the proof that most of humankind is indeed retarded and as one of the best confirmation of their own belief system, and while they will praise left-wing policies, they will also display a strong love for authoritarian power structures, arguing that most human beings are so dumb that they should never be trusted even to vote bread and circuses for themselves. These “left-wing objectivists” tend to start far on the left, but as they grow older, and the thirst for power grows, then often end up on the right-wing, sometimes even on the far-right (usually when they cannot find a place in the “institutional” conservative parties), where their mishantropy becomes more and more apparent as they stop advocating progressive policies but stick to their love of authoritarian systems. This is a long tradition in France, I could make this wall of text even bigger by citing the most obvious examples, and Harris texts and behavior point toward an eerily similar patern.
      *
      These two phenomenums make me at the same time inoculated by Harris’ attempts to hide his intent behind a collection of circumvolution (I’ve seen that trick done by well known scammers before) and unwilling not to point my finger and shout “There’s a crook in your house!” when I see a crook in someone’s house.

  • sumdum

    Those who think that it is problematic to disprove claims about the existence of deities, or at least certain deities.

    But the burden of proof lies with the theists, not with atheists. So I dont see a problem using the word atheist. It seems people complaining want atheists to remain invisible and quiet.

    • J. J. Ramsey

      But the burden of proof lies with the theists

      If someone arguing for the existence of alien life fails to make his or her case, then one says that he or she has not yet met the burden of proof. However, one can nonetheless remain agnostic about the existence of alien life on the grounds that a failure to prove is not, in and of itself, the same as a disproof. Burden of proof arguments just don’t get you very far.

    • Beth

      The burden of proof lies with whomever is attempting to convince someone else to change their opinion. Thus, a theist attempting to convince others that their god exists has the burden of proof. An atheist attempting to convert a theist to the position that their god does not exist has the burden of proof. It doesn’t default to a particular position, but to whomever is attempting to change someone else’s mind.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM.

      So you’re saying that agnostics, who aren’t trying to convert anyone to their “I don’t know and you don’t either” indecision don’t have to prove anything. Okay, that makes sense.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    So, after reading the post … I describe myself as an agnostic theist. I don’t think I fit in your classifications, yet I think I would in the original definition of the term, meaning that I a) think that the truth value of “God exists” is unknowable but since I do not think that you can only believe that you know to be true b) believe God exists.

    So, am I using the wrong term, or am I really an atheist despite having a belief in God?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I would classify you as an agnostic theist. It’s your choice to affirm as you wish. I wouldn’t say what you “really” are unless you wanted to say you were an agnostic simpliciter while refusing to affirm the existence of gods, in which case I would say you are an agnostic de facto atheist in denial. But if you say, it cannot be known and yet I believe, you’re an agnostic theist by my classification.

  • abb3w

    Cute teaser, but …no. Agnostics as a group more resemble atheists than they resemble the religious, but there’s still fairly pronounced distinctions.

    Sociologically, relative to atheists, agnostics tend to:
    • be significantly more accepting of the notion of God
    • score slightly lower on the DOG scale of “dogmatism” (defined in this case as “whatever this scale is measuring”) and slightly higher on the RWA “authoritarian follower” scale
    • be more likely to be willing to change their minds about God in the light of incremental new evidence
    • be less likely to tell a hypothetical teen suddenly doubting their existing upbringing that it was bogus, or want such a teen to end sharing their beliefs
    • be slightly better disposed to creationism
    • be bit more ethnocentric, and less tolerant of homosexuals.

    Data source: Atheists: a groundbreaking study of America’s nonbelievers, Bruce Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer; see in particular page 127.


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