Why Are You Agnostic?

When discussing religion, I’ve heard Stephen Colbert say this a couple times: “Isn’t an agnostic just an atheist without balls?”

I used to think Agnosticism was a fair position to take. The first openly non-religious person I ever met was a girl who called herself agnostic back in 8th grade. I don’t remember how she explained it, but whatever she said, it made sense to me at the time even though I was still religious myself.

But now, that term makes me cringe.

It’s the atheist version of the word “spiritual.”

It’s a “safe” way of saying you don’t believe in god. “Atheist” sounds evil and wrong and scary, but “agnostic” sounds safer and milder: People will still like you if you say you’re “agnostic” — It makes it sound like you haven’t fully decided where you stand on that whole “God” thing. But people will run away screaming if you say you’re an atheist.

The argument I tend to hear from agnostics is that we don’t have all the information about god’s existence, so we shouldn’t take a position on it. We can’t definitively say god exists or doesn’t exist, so let’s put ourselves somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

[Cue up the Russell’s Teapot argument.] Of course, we don’t have “all the information” on damn near anything you can make up, but no one says they’re agnostic about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. No one says they’re agnostic about Zeus or Thor. So why are they agnostic about “God”?

It all just seems very wishy-washy.

And it gets to the heart of this Toothpaste For Dinner cartoon:

I can understand the reasons people give for calling themselves atheists or Humanists or Skeptics, but I don’t get why people still cling to Agnostic.

Is anyone out there a self-proclaimed agnostic? Why do you use that term instead of atheist (or whatever else is in that family of terms)?

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  • flatlander100

    When I’m asked what I am, I sometimes say think I’m an agnostic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, an atheist on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and on Sundays, I sleep in too late to worry about it.

    Generally, I like to hang on [in all matters] to the possibility, however unlikely it appears to be, that I might be wrong. Agnostic seems to fit with that a sliver better than atheist does.

  • Andrew Morgan

    Agnosticism isn’t a species of atheism — you can be an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. All agnosticism says is “We don’t know” (weak) or “we can’t know” (strong), but “agnostic” by itself doesn’t imply that you don’t believe in god.

    Agnostic theists say “I believe there is a god, but we can’t know for sure.” Agnostic atheists say, “I don’t believe there is a god, but we can’t/don’t know for sure.”

    So in that respect, it’s not “a ‘safe’ way of saying you don’t believe in god,” since that’s not implied.

    I agree, though, that the vast majority of folks who use the term would be agnostic atheists.

  • http://www.myspace.com/youreundoingmybeltwronghun Tim D.

    I consider myself a little of both, actually; philosophically speaking I’m an agnostic, in that I believe that IF god exists/existed, then it would be entirely possible for him to do so in a way that was beyond my ability to comprehend, and so it would be presumptuous of me to say that he couldn’t or doesn’t. However, practically speaking, I’m an atheist in that I don’t believe that god exists, nor do I believe that I should try and live my life according to whether or not that being exists. As the immortal Black Jack once said, “I dunno much about life after death. Nor do I care.”

    I guess you’d say I’m an “agnatheist?” 0.0

    But seriously….I think the difference between agnostic and atheist is a simple but important one. Agnosticism concerns knowledge and ontology/epistemology (whether or not we CAN know if god exists to begin with), whereas atheism is more about personal belief (whether or not I BELIEVE he exists).

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that an agnostic is an “atheist without balls” any more than it makes sense to say that “evolution supporters are just abiogenesis supporters without balls;” they cover different areas of knowledge/belief. Like I explained, you can be both agnostic and atheist.

  • Jayne

    I really like how Andrew described it. Bill Maher says that he’s an agnostic, because there’s no way to prove there isn’t a God any more than there is.

    Agnostic is find with me — it doesn’t make me cringe at all.

    My husband hates the word “atheist”, because he says it implies a kind of militancy that’s like religion, and he abhors anyone trying to get him to believe or disbelieve anything. He prefers “secularist.”

  • Florian

    I’m an agnostic atheist. I don’t believe a god exists (atheist) but i’d be open to evidence for a god (agnostic). The terms mean different things and are not mutually exclusive.

  • ML

    You know what’s funny about this, that in the bible it says that you cannot drink warm water, it will make you vomit, meaning you either believe or you don’t. I find agnostics to be completly ridiculous.

  • Mike

    Isn’t an agnostic just an atheist without balls?

    Or maybe an atheist is just an agnostic who is too arrogant to admit that, given our incomplete knowledge of the universe and its origins, it is at least a possibility that God exists.

  • Beijingrrl

    I used to sort of consider myself agnostic because personally I find it a waste of time to ponder the “mysteries of life”. We probably will never know what happens after death until we die. We’ll probably never know how life began. I’m fine with that.

    It seems much more relevant to me to think about philosophical questions that effect us here and now. If I thoughtfully define my own morality and live within those bounds and it’s not enough for some theoretical higher being at the end of the day, so be it. I just can’t be bothered to jump through anyone’s hoops but those of my own making.

    I do consider myself an atheist now. Because, come on, gods, really? It’s just too ridiculous to give any credence to the idea of a sky daddy, but the way religion is shoved down your throat in the US, you are forced to consider these concepts.

    “Imagine all the people living for today.” Well said, John Lennon, well said.

  • Charon

    I think “agnostic” is a useful label precisely because it doesn’t evoke feelings as strong as “atheist,” and can therefore serve as a stepping stone for those leaving religion.

    Tim D. raises an interesting point about “agnostic” being an epistemological stance and “atheist” being a personal stance. I have some sympathy for that view. As a scientist, though, I’m not sure the distinction is really accurate. If you say, “we cannot know whether or not a god exists,” then a scientist will say, “you just said no gods exist.” (The cosmologist Sean Carroll, for example, has raised this point many times.) If there is absolutely no way, even in theory, to distinguish a universe with a god from a universe without one, then by definition such a “god” has no consequences, no influence, no importance, and really, no existence, in any useful ontology.

  • Johann

    But seriously….I think the difference between agnostic and atheist is a simple but important one. Agnosticism concerns knowledge and ontology/epistemology (whether or not we CAN know if god exists to begin with), whereas atheism is more about personal belief (whether or not I BELIEVE he exists).

    I’d buy this in the abstract sense, but in practical terms, pretty much every agnostic I’ve encountered (granted, this is a fairly small group) used the term to refer to belief. Not “we can’t know” but “I don’t know” – and for some reason, none of them were as reticent to take a stand on the existence of leprechauns. 😛 Would you say this is a fair characterization in that context?

  • Charon

    It’s interesting that some agnostics are very fiercely agnostic – for example, calling atheists arrogant. The basic problem seems to be that everyone is using their own personal definitions of the terms, and thus making straw men like mad.

    No scientist ever says the probability of something is p=0, or p=1. A trivial consequence of Bayes’ theorem is that if you start with p=0 or p=1, then no amount of evidence will ever change the probability. At that point, you have stopped doing science. But if p=1e-45, then we carry on with our lives as if p=0. That’s atheism.

    (It’s true that there are a few atheists who are better described as mathematical atheists rather than scientific atheists, and believe that the concept of god is logically contradictory, and thus p=0 exactly. I have sympathy for this view, but think it’s a dangerous game to play, because believers are notoriously bad at defining their gods – and are notoriously slippery about their definitions.)

  • http://homeschoolingsteven.blogspot.com/ Karen

    I’ve always liked the idea of gnosticism so “agnostic” always seems the antithesis of that.
    In fact, it’s evil.
    Like “People of the Lie” evil.
    Like Christians who believe in God “just in case” evil.

    I’m kidding. I don’t think it’s evil. :)

    But, I do think it’s a prettier word than Atheist.
    But, I’m not Agnostic.
    I’m non-theist.
    Ok, and don’t tell me that’s a cop-out word, too. :)

  • Frank

    A person who claims to believe but not know something, as Mr Morgan attributes to agnostics above, is admitting to intellectual dishonesty. Knowledge is, by definition, justified true belief, so a person who claims to believe but not know something is admitting to either believing something without justification. And if a person knows that one of their beliefs is unjustified, and does not revise the belief, there is something seriously wrong there.

    I think putting belief in god on Dawkins’ seven point scale can be useful here. If a person is honestly and truly somewhere in the ballpark of a four, then I don’t see anything wrong with using the word “agnostic.” I would still consider them to be in the category of atheist as well, but there does seem to be some meaning to their choice of label. If a person is more like a six, and uses the word because it sounds nicer or because they are afraid of peoples reactions, then he or she is either cowardly or wise, depending on where in the world he or she is living.

  • http://infalliblefailure.blogspot.com Jeff Satterley

    @Florian

    but i’d be open to evidence for a god (agnostic).

    I’m open to new evidence for most things, including the existence of a god. That’s the mark of a good skeptic. But I’m not agnostic (at least about the definitions of God I’ve come across so far).

    You can be open to evidence contrary to your beliefs, and still have enough justification for holding your beliefs. That’s what knowledge is: justified true belief (disregarding Gettier cases).

  • http://baconeatingatheistjew.blogspot.com/ The Atheist Jew

    An atheist is simply someone who answers the question “do you believe in God?” with a NO.

    Technically, everyone is agnostic, since God has never been proven, because an agnostic is someone who doesn’t know (for sure) if God exists.

    Even the most brainwashed theist must have moments where they think “God may not exist.” OK, maybe not.

  • Caio

    My conception of agnosticism is different; it’s not about the (im)possibility of the existence of a God so much as it is about my indifference to its existence.

    If God doesn’t exist, problem solved; if he does, I don’t why it would want me to worship it or why I should do that, considering the lousy job he did.

    So I’d say I’m an agnostic just because I don’t give a damn.

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    I’m an agnostic because I don’t believe atheists exist.

  • http://www.filipinofreethinkers.org Frank

    I use the term agnostic around believer friends, because they’re not familiar with the difference between strong and weak atheism. And then I proceed to explain that agnostics are technically atheists. It’s a conversation starter, and doesn’t turn them off to conversation. It has nothing to do with identity for me; it’s just a label. And if I had to choose a label, I’d go for one that’s more practical when conversing with believers. (My atheist friends know agnostics are atheists anyway).

  • JD

    Didn’t your article already address this? It makes dealing with people easier, especially when they have mental baggage tied with the atheist label. I don’t really think humanist or skeptic is something most people have heard of and grasp. And even at that, skeptic has connotations that are much wider than the knowledge of the legitimate skepticism movement, often seems to mean a person that’s simply a denier on things like evolution & global warming.

  • Aaron

    The problem with the term ‘agnostic’ is that in the real world when someone uses the term it always (that I have encountered) means the exact same thing as atheist. The definition is something along the lines of ‘I don’t have faith (or believe) that there is a god, but given enough evidence I would change that stance’

    No atheist that I know of would claim that even if the goddess Herself were to come down and perform miracles to order, that they still would not believe she existed. It is a ridiculous position.

    So, what is the person claiming to be agnostic trying to say, that he requires less evidence to believe in a god? That to be an atheist you must be incapable of believing in a god, even given sufficient evidence?

    For those on here that identify with the term agnostic, I would really like to know, just what do you think the rest of us (atheists) believe?

  • Jennifer

    *raises hand*

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    Hamlet Act 1, scene 5

    I have to self-identify as a 3 on Dawkins scale. I think religion is crap ~ if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to pick a religion I would say “Universalist” – but I don’t attend services except for Christmas and Easter and then only to keep my mother happy. Oh yes, I am invited to a seder every year by a Jewish friend and I attend because it is fun, and good conversation. I have attended B’hai prayer meetings and Native American sweat lodges. I can’t say God exists or not – but I would like to think there is. But I completely don’t think you need god to be “good” or “moral”. I don’t think God is the problem – intolerant bigots who hide behind religion and try to impress their beliefs on others are.

    I guess there are many on this site who would dismiss me a less than rational. I’d rate myself as a 3 on other superstitious/paranormal things as well – like ghosts, intelligent life on other planets, etc.

  • http://reanhouse.blogspot.com Sarah

    I think I called myself an agnostic before I really knew what being an atheist was about. I’d heard someone say they were an agnostic because there wasn’t enough evidence for god. I started (quietly) calling myself an agnostic because I wasn’t sure. When I decided that there really was NO evidence to support belief in god and abandoned him/her/it forever I changed my title to atheist.

    I’m open to being proven wrong even if it’s just so I can tell god what an asshat he is. If I’m ever spoken to by a burning bush I’ll consider myself a born again theist (after having myself checked out by a team of psychiatrists!)

  • Jennifer

    For those on here that identify with the term agnostic, I would really like to know, just what do you think the rest of us (atheists) believe?

    Atheist – there is no proof, therefore I do not believe there is a god(dess). I discount the possibility of god until empirical evidence is provided.

    Agnostic – there is no proof, but I do not discount the possibility that god might exist.
    (And yes – I don’t discount the possibility that leprechauns/brownies/whathaveyou might exist. SOMEONE keeps hiding my carkeys! :p)

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    An agnostic is a superstitious atheist.

  • Mr Z

    “I don’t know” is much easier to say and has a backup plan, as though the agnostic can convert back to believer if required.

    The difference between agnosticism and atheism is simple to me: agnostics don’t know while atheists know that the evidence, nay even the very idea of a god comes from man himself and no other. If you cannot be certain of that one thing, agnosticism is a safe bet. To me, it’s only when you can say that yes, mankind made the idea of gods up on it’s own, and that there is no credible evidence which suggests otherwise, and then, then you will be an atheist.

    We talk about other man-made deities as though they are cardboard cutouts, yet in their day they were as real to humans as the God of Abraham seems today. When you stop whistling in the dark and looking for some magic protection against the harsh, cold, reality of life you will be atheist; strong and proud, an achievement all on your own without a need for someone to run to when the lightning starts.

    To me that is the difference between agnosticism and atheism.

  • Aaron

    @Jennifer: Ah! So agnostic is someone that does not understand the definition of the words ‘possibility’,’evidence’, and ‘proof’ 😉

    I had never understood that before.

  • Jonathon

    I think that this stance is as bad and the other “religions” when you bully people into taking a stance. There are many theories as to Creationism, Evolution, Big Bang, etc… They are just theories. Those that settle on those as facts are just as guilty of just accepting what a “leader” of an atheist movement is telling them to think. Being Agnostic is a fair and legitamite stance to take. I personally don’t believe what any major religion teaches, but I am not in a rush to just accept something because you insult my intellegence. Poor argueing technique.

  • http://www.pinary.com/ Pinary

    I think it’s unlikely that a god exists, but I haven’t studied the arguments of either side enough to make a definitive decision.

    Those who take the scientific perspective and take the lack of evidence to indicate a lack of existence are sufficiently satisfied by their investigations into the topic to come to a conclusion. I haven’t done the research or looked at the arguments to my own satisfaction, so I am not going to make a conclusive statement.

    I am going to continue to live my life with the assumption that there is no god, as that is, as far as I can tell, the most likely scenario, but I haven’t taken the time to look at the evidence.

    There’s really only one reason I haven’t done so- I can’t be arsed to do it. Whether or not I thought a god exists, I’d still act the same. If I were deist, I wouldn’t have any reason to choose one religion over another, so I would just go broad-strokes and live by the philosophy of “don’t be a dick.” If I were atheist, I’d just choose to live by my own moral philosophy: “don’t be a dick.”

    My belief in a god makes no difference whatsoever- it’s an irrelevant question, and I can’t be bothered to take the time to decide on an answer.

    According to a minute or two of googling, that makes me an apatheist. Sounds good to me.

    (Note: This doesn’t mean I don’t care about atrocities committed in the name of or under the cover of religious belief. That sort of thing is a separate matter to the fundamental question of belief in a god.)

  • jemand

    I *have* called myself agnostic in the past, and when pressed on what that meant, basically thought fuck it and said, “it means I’m an atheist who thought you’d react badly if I said that right out.”

  • jason

    Ask yourself one simple question: “Do I believe in a god or gods?”

    If the answer is ANYTHING other than “Yes”….you are an A-Theist. Period!

    Call yourself whatever you want or redefine terms however you like, the fact would remain that if you dont answer that question in the affirmative you’re an Atheist.

  • Aaron

    I think it’s unlikely that a god exists, but I haven’t studied the arguments of either side enough to make a definitive decision.

    If I were deist, I wouldn’t have any reason to choose one religion over another, so I would just go broad-strokes and live by the philosophy of “don’t be a dick.”

    I’m sorry Pinary, I’m going to have to call you out on this one.

    It simply does not follow, you have not done enough research to know if god exists, but have done enough to know that there is no way to decide which religion to follow?
    You think that even if you knew that god exists you would still (knowing the consequences) act in a manner contrary to that knowledge?
    Because, lets face it, almost all major religions require that to actually follow their god you have to be a pretty big dick a most of the time.
    Sounds to me that you are an atheist that just doesn’t want to face the implications of what that means.

  • ftl

    I think Greta Christina’s post from a while back touched on some of this.

    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2007/01/atheist_or_agno.html

  • Avelle

    I call myself an agnostic theist; I believe in god (note the lack of capitalisation, I would never assume what type of diety or dieties exist) but am quite willing to accept that there is not a god. Further to this, I believe in god, but I think it is ridiculous to think that you can rationalise him/her/it along the lines of religion. As such, while I believe that there is most likely a higher power, I in no way associate myself with religion. It seems utterly presumptious, not to mention often detrimental, to do so.

  • Tamara

    I haven’t skimmed the comments yet, but I must take issue with your criticism of agnostics. I have come to view religious beliefs are more of a spectrum, and agnostic beliefs legitimately fall on that spectrum. I think it is fine to believe in something divine, a creator- especially if it is a step in the direction AWAY from religion. I was an agnostic for probably 4 years before claiming atheism, and it was a comfortable, NECESSARY step for me.

    Just view agnostics as “baby atheists”- and continue the incredible, enlightening discussions, and they will hopefully one day feel free to call themselves atheists- just as we hope for ALL of our fellow humans.

  • Aaron

    @Tamara: Now that is a definition I can a accept, agnostic is an emotional safe zone for insecure atheists. I see nothing wrong with that, you need to have some stepping stones to move away from the comfort of what you always believed in. Just understand that us challenging your definition is also a necessary part of growing into an emotionally secure atheist.

  • Nakor

    Seems some people are just pointing out that agnosticism and atheism can go hand in hand. I think Hemant was talking about those agnostics who don’t actively believe in a god (making them effective atheists) but utterly refuse to be classified as atheists as though their belief that a god may exist means they are not.

    Personally, I think agnostic is a good term for those people who are really at a confused point and aren’t sure if they believe or not. Not people who answer “maybe god exists, I don’t know” — those are atheists — but people who answer “maybe I believe, I don’t know.” People still confused over what they do and don’t believe. This, however, is usually a temporary phase until the person ultimately decides they do believe or they don’t. Those who decide they don’t know whether god exists but no longer hold any personal belief in god — and aren’t confused or lost about their position — are better described as atheists (or agnostic atheists if you must; there really aren’t many gnostic atheists though).

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    I am so glad for many of the comments here. Several I agree with.

    I think the issue is that the meanings of “atheism” and “agnosticism” have shifted. Instead of atheism meaning a lack of belief in deities (e.g., “Do you believe gods exist?” Answer: no.), it has become interpreted as a belief in the nonexistence of deities (e.g., “Do you believe gods do not exist? Answer: yes). So, I find that the position many self-proclaimed agnostics take is, “I don’t believe either way.”

    The problem…firstly, atheism never solely was the belief that gods do not exist. It was instead the lack of belief that gods do exist.

    Secondly, as has been mentioned, agnosticism was a position on knowledge (or rather, the lack of it). When we speak of agnosticism as a “middle option” or “fence sitter option,” we fail to account for the tradition of agnostic theists (I don’t know, but I believe/have faith/hope that there is a god), and agnostic atheists (I don’t know that there isn’t a god, but I don’t believe there is.)

    Nevertheless, I think some people are approaching things the wrong way. The challenge isn’t to say, ‘Why are you agnostic about god? You aren’t agnostic about other things?” Because chances, are: they are and you should be. However, we just are extremely lazy when we speak about most things. The entire point of the Celestial Teapot argument isn’t that “there is no teapot” or that we should *believe* that there is no teapot…but rather that we don’t have reason to believe that there is.

    So the argument shouldn’t be to try to trick self-proclaimed agnostics into saying they believe there is no god (or that there is probably no god, or whatever else people are saying). Rather, it’s to point out that the relevant question was NOT “Is there a god?” (we don’t know) or “Do you believe there is no god?” (irrelevant), but “Do you believe that there is a god?” to which one either believes or does not believe. There is no “middle” position to an a vs. not-a binary.

    {I certainly wish hemant fixes his comment email subscription one of these days}

    (Hemant says: It’s on my list of things to do this summer!)

  • Krista

    I agree with the idea that “agnostic” is more of a crutch term. For instance, when I was still going through the steps of first questioning religion, to acknowledging that *maybe* God didn’t exist, and before finally becoming an atheist, I used the term agnostic. I wasn’t sure what I believed, or, at the very least, was in denial about my beliefs, and the term “agnostic” helped aid me along my journey.
    For people like me who come from a severely religious family, the realization that you are an atheist can be pretty much just as frightening as realizing you just killed somebody – it’s uber scary. But having that middle ground makes it easier to come to terms with yourself and your beliefs – sort of like a mental novocaine before the painful injection of truth and gigantic life change.

    And just as agnosticism can be a crutch for the person going through changes in belief, it’s also good for bringing one’s family and loved ones to terms with your different beliefs. It’s one thing to tell total strangers, who you have no connection to, something that might alienate you from them, but it’s much more difficult to tell your family and loved ones something when you know that it might cause you to lose them all.

  • Rachul

    Hemant, my husband is an atheist and i consider myself to be agnostic. We have had this discussion many times so i will tell you what i have told him. For me, it is not so much a question of is there a god or isn’t there, but a greater question of faith.

    First of all, I have to disagree with you in that I would not call agnosticism the atheist version of “spiritual” (in fact, I would not call it the atheist version of anything). To be spiritual is to believe that there exists some intangible aspect of the human condition – a soul, if you will. To be agnostic is to assert that you have no belief in anything whatsoever, and that what you hold to be true comes through scientific evidence, historical fact, and personal observation.

    Which brings me to the underlying question of faith. Atheists have a belief, albeit very strongly supported by a lack of evidence to the contrary, but a belief nonetheless that there is no god, no soul. This faith in no god can be as strong as any religious zealot’s belief in the divine (who sees “evidence” of divine works all around him). From an agnostic perspective, it is the atheist that has the weaker stance, because when it comes right down to it, atheism is a faith (in the nonexistence of god) whereas agnosticism is a lack of a belief system altogether. As Nietzsche’s post-modern nihilism looks beyond good and evil, so does agnosticism go beyond atheism and religion. Agnosticism is the only stance that removes faith from the equation altogether, and simply takes life and death and everything in between for what it is, at face value. To me, atheism and religion are two polar ends of the same spectrum, where agnosticism isn’t even on the spectrum. But definitely NOT “somewhere in the middle”.

    In my experience, “agnostic” is not a safe term. When my husband says he’s an atheist, at least everyone has a clear-cut idea of what he means. When I say I am agnostic, I have to explain, in quite a lot of detail, exactly what I mean by that. Which is one of the main reasons i tend to stay out of these types of discussions in polite society. When I explain that I choose to live my life guided by reason and logic and that I do not have any faith in anything… they prefer my husband’s atheism. Even my husband thinks I’m a little kooky for opting out of the debate altogether.

    So let me ask you Hemant: What is it about simply not having faith (one way or the other) that is so unsettling to both religious people and atheists alike? You are right in that we agnostics are in a class by ourselves – we are shunned by religious people for our lack of faith and by atheists for our, what… lack of faith?!?!? Hmmm… but we’re the wishy-washy ones. I don’t think so. But apparently faith in something, ANYTHING, even faith in the non-existence of god, is more socially acceptable than a lack of faith altogether.

    Most of the time I skirt the issue altogether and just refer to myself as a humanist, which I am in the broadest sense. And yes, I AM as agnostic about FSM and Thor and Zeus and Krishna and Allah and Buddha and all the rest as I am of the judeo-christian god. I see all these religions, dead and dying, as mythologies, having value in that the study of them brings us closer to an understanding of human nature past and present.

    Ultimately, my lack of faith has made me an outsider in both religious and atheist circles, but it has also brought me serenity, clarity, and objectivity, and I am a morally and ethically responsible person both to myself and to my faith-afflicted friends and family. In the here and now, that’s what is truly important to me.

  • Erp

    I must admit this is an old debate, my great grandfather back in the 1880’s decided he was an atheist not an agnostic because the latter term was too wishy-washy.

    However, agnosticism has a respectable history, coined by Thomas Huxley to describe himself and used by people such as Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll.

    Personally I would call myself a humanist (of an atheistic variety if necessary) as it describes what I am and not what I am not.

  • http://www.pinary.com/ Pinary

    I’m sorry Pinary, I’m going to have to call you out on this one.

    It simply does not follow, you have not done enough research to know if god exists, but have done enough to know that there is no way to decide which religion to follow?
    You think that even if you knew that god exists you would still (knowing the consequences) act in a manner contrary to that knowledge?
    Because, lets face it, almost all major religions require that to actually follow their god you have to be a pretty big dick a most of the time.
    Sounds to me that you are an atheist that just doesn’t want to face the implications of what that means.

    Give me one good reason to pick one religious faith over another.

  • Kelly

    I have a good friend that is, what I like to call, an agnostic pagan. She is pagan in the sense that she finds spiritual comfort in nature. She is pretty literally a “tree hugger”, when life hands her a difficult moment, she goes on a hike and just spends time in the natural world. She has great reverence for nature, almost to a point of worship-but only in the sense that she feels that she thinks more clearly in a natural setting, outside the trappings of the human world. She may light a candle in a ritualistic way, although she has no belief that lighting that candle is what will make a difference in any outcome. It’s just a comforting ritual. However, she has no belief in the supernatural. So, as we all know, “agnostic” has more meaning than just “being unsure about the existence of a supernatural being”. To me it can also describe a truly spiritual person with no belief in the supernatural.

  • Aaron

    @Pinary: I’m not saying that I have one. I also have no reason to believe in a god. I’m just saying that you seem to have a strange requirement for evidence. Some things apparently need them, others not.

  • Jeff

    Thats a pretty common misconception about an agnostic’s beliefs. Look at it this way. Religious people believe with 100% certainty that there is a god. And not just any god, THEIR god. Athiests believe that there is NO god. Since neither one can be definitively proven, the only reasonable way to approach the matter is with a good deal of doubt. You cant prove or disprove the existence of god, so its counterproductive for a person to commit himself that there is DEFINITELY or DEFINITELY NOT the existence of that which cannot be proven.

  • http://www.xophoros.com/ Topher

    Calling yourself agnostic on the question of whether a god exists is completely dodging the question (i.e. you are not revealing whether you believe in a god or not). Yet, I don’t think most people mean to dodge the question. I started out calling myself an agnostic, out of the misunderstanding I had with atheism. I recently posted about this topic as well (http://www.xophoros.com/blog/2010/05/agnostics-closet-atheists-or-unreasonable-theists/) although I wish I had done so with less hyperbole.

    I will simply say this. The label, agnostic, is most useful in its more specific definition (the question of knowledge). The main issue I find with people calling themselves agnostic on the question of god, is that it reinforces misconceptions about atheism, and serves to keep atheists marginalized. This is frustrating when most who do use the agnostic label actually are atheists, who either don’t know it, or don’t like the idea of using the scary label (even though the label would warm up more on people if it was used more).

  • Whitney

    And to think, you had to ride in a car and have lunch with at least two agnostics today! 😉

    I call myself an agnostic not because I’m afraid of the term atheist but because I believe that there is not enough evidence for me to believe that any higher power exists or doesn’t exist. I feel like I sound like a broken record but it’s what I feel.

    You’re right, we don’t have evidence for anything, but I see being agnostic not as being agnostic for a specific god but simply as a term to question if any gods or goddesses or any other higher powers exist at all. I was pagan at one point in my life and while I never prayed to Zeus I acknowledged Demeter.

    And yeah, maybe I am just using it as a placeholder term, but I’m still working on my life.

    I would argue that rather than getting mad at agnostics for being wishy-washy, you should try and recognize that perhaps they’re just in the middle of a journey and to also realize that not everyone can make the jump immediately from religious to atheist. I have personally gone from religious to spiritual and I have only recently (in the past two years) arrived at agnostic. Maybe someday I’ll move to atheist, but for now, I’m here.

    I understand your frustration, but by discrediting agnostics you seem to be implying that only three belief systems (atheism, skepticism and secular humanism) are valid labels which seems to be what many religions do.

    Besides, would you rather someone call themselves an atheist if they weren’t really one?

    However, I appreciate the TFD reference. :)

  • fyreflye

    On the rare occasions when someone asks me if I believe in “God” I say “I don’t believe in any of the gods that humans created.” The next questions is usually about which gods I do believe in and the answer is “None.” That usually ends the conversation without requiring me to claim any label, but if the questioner does venture “You mean you’re an atheist?” my answer is “No, it means I don’t believe in any of the gods humans created.” That usually leaves them sufficiently puzzled to leave me alone. Did I mention that I’m not one of those horrid “New” Atheists? Just an Unfriendly one.

  • http://www.xophoros.com/ Topher

    However, agnosticism has a respectable history, coined by Thomas Huxley to describe himself and used by people such as Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll.

    Bertrand Russell also considered himself to be an atheist. Huxley’s and Russell’s use of the term, agnostic, is also the same as it is used by most atheists. We reject a claim until we have evidence. Not, reject the possibility, just reject the claim.

  • Alex

    I’ve become more comfortable calling myself a Humane Naturalist. UU Rev. Randy Becker down in Keywest gave a good sermon on Atheism last year, his key point was that you have to look at beliefs in a circular pattern, where you begin with a belief, then you move to doubt or agnosticism about that belief, then on to disbelief or atheism about that belief, then finally on to a new belief. If you stop at agnosticism then I think you are stuck in a realm of relativism, which I don’t think is a good place to remain.

  • Mr Z

    I guess it goes to show how fully religion permeates society that there is bad stigma attached to the word atheist, to the point that it’s unpleasant to use it in conversation.

    I’ve no problem telling people that I’m an atheist face to face, if they want to know more and are religious minded, I politely decline to talk about it unless the strike me as someone who can hold a conversation about the topic without condemning me to hell. I do feel that there is no reason to make up new words. Monikers like secular humanism don’t really settle the question, sidestepping the gravamen of the questioner’s intent and often enough being invitation to continue talking about it.

    I find that more than 90% of the time, someone who asks is more interested in whether you are like them or not than in what you actually believe. This is not uncommon in human behavior, and should be treated honestly IMO. Imagine the confusion such evasive speech would cause a young child; now you have to explain more words – a/theism, humanist, secular, deist and perhaps more ;-0 In my experience if the explanation is too complex for a young child most people likely to ask the question are going to have a hard time understanding too. <– That is just an opinion.

  • Melanie

    I would object to the argument that says an agnostic is an atheist without any balls. Really, we’re just the ones that haven’t given up our search for truth. By understanding that many more things may be possible explanations for our being, life, earth, etc… then we close less doors in our search for truth. Once someone can thoroughly prove to me what is going on with hard solid evidence, I’ll change my mind, but until then I won’t accept a position merely because others do it.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    Pshhhh, people spend too much time talking about atheism vs agnosticism. I also spent time on it years ago, but now I don’t care. The only thing it seems to indicate about a person is what they look for in an identity label.

  • http://seangill-insidemyhead.blogspot.com SeanG

    Tamara:

    I haven’t skimmed the comments yet, but I must take issue with your criticism of agnostics. I have come to view religious beliefs are more of a spectrum, and agnostic beliefs legitimately fall on that spectrum. I think it is fine to believe in something divine, a creator- especially if it is a step in the direction AWAY from religion. I was an agnostic for probably 4 years before claiming atheism, and it was a comfortable, NECESSARY step for me.

    Just view agnostics as “baby atheists”- and continue the incredible, enlightening discussions, and they will hopefully one day feel free to call themselves atheists- just as we hope for ALL of our fellow humans.

    Then why don’t they call themselves deists? Maybe for the same reason they don’t call themselves atheists. Agnostic is a safe word in religious company. Even safer than apatheist. To a believer, agnostic mean “I haven’t decided yet” and they may also hear “this is a good time to try to share the good news.”

    Using the term atheist or deist tends to shut down their avenues of argument. Sure, it’s a fine step, as you say, on your way to atheism, but I think Hemant’s question is directed at people who remain agnostics for decades, or even their whole lives. I don’t think I’ve ever actually met a life-long agnostic.

  • Patrick O.

    Atheism is a disbelief in a God not a belief that god does not exist, there is a vast difference because the real definition leaves a level of uncertainty. This means that atheists are agnostics, for the most part.

    Atheism is the default position. All we want is evidence to support the outlandish claims that are presented to us. Until that requirement is fulfilled we will stay as we were when we were born.

    Remember, atheists are different and have varying degrees of belief. I have never met anyone who is 100 percent certain that there is no “creator”. It would be illogical to me to be 100 percent certain.

    I believe that all human gods (Yahweh, Zeus, etc.) are are not real, unless someone can back up their scriptural claims with evidence. I am open to only empirical, verifiable evidence.

    However, there is a possibility of a god that exists separate from human dogma and scripture that I do not claim to know.

    I guess I would be an Agnostic Atheist. I don’t know if a god exists. There is no evidence that God (Yahweh) is real and no reason to believe in it. God (Yahweh) is undefined. He cannot be explained clearly enough in order for me to know what I am believing in.

  • http://www.godless.biz/ Andrew Skegg

    Interesting you post this. Maybe it’s the topic of the month?

    I had a run in with another atheist who asserted I was not a “true” atheist because I do not claim omniscience and state “there is no god” (can you spot the logic fallacy and the assumption of the burden of proof?).

    Technically I am agnostic about *all* things. While in everyday language it is not profitable to differentiate the terms, but in theological and philosophical discussions ti can make all the difference. Any decent apologist will call you out on making such bare faced claims without the evidence to back them up. At this point you lose the debate. Period.

    Anyway, if anyone is interested in reading what happened you can visit the blog post and associated comments here

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ WMDKitty

    I subscribe to an agnostic apathy — I don’t know and I don’t care.

  • April

    I have a lot of agnostic friends. I think they just want to avoid the stigma of being atheist. Believe me, I understand. For some reason atheism is akin to satanism in the minds of many (which makes no sense).

    My agnostic friends say they are agnostic because they just don’t know for sure what is out there. But I am atheist because I KNOW FOR SURE that every human religion in existence is made up by humans. There may be something supernatural out there in the universe, but no one has ever seen it and there is nothing proving that any single religion to date has any validity.

    So yes, agnosticism is just a wishy washy way to not commit to what we know to be true–there is no god.

  • Mr Z

    @Andrew Skegg: As an atheist I say there is no god. Philosophically, none of us can be sure of anything we experience in this world, so the thought goes. Since you cannot be certain of what you see or hear, there is no reason to cogitate and waffle about supernatural beings IMO. Those that believe offer evidence and reason that is paltry, evaporates when scrutinized critically, and tends to say ‘it is only real if you believe it’ in the end. They might as well be trying to convince you that they have an invisible dragon living in their garage, unless you are the kind of person that might start believing it’s possible to have invisible purple dragons living in garages.. but you’re not quite sure so say you are undecided. Since all thought, even the idea that a god exists, is based on such thinking and evidence, there is really no reason that I can see to consider the idea any more plausible than the ‘world is flat’ idea and others like it.

    That is to say that the evidence shows it to be no more plausible than Zeus, Thor, or Isis or any other made up gods. We might like the idea of a creator god and eternal life, but it’s just a story, just a thought. A thought brought to you by stone age mankind. Think for a minute about what stone age people knew to be true of the world…. ok, take your time, think a bit more. You’ll get to it in the end…. it’s just an idea, one that caught on with people who like power and position.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    Mr Z:

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    However, absence of evidence certainly doesn’t give us reason to believe that those claims are true. I think Andrew Skegg is right to point out the assumption of burden of proof and the logical fallacy that “strong” or “positive” atheists commit.

  • Alan E.

    What about flipping it around? Science can’t prove anything to be 100% true. We can make certain predictions about the world, and they tend to be true, but there is certainly a possibility that something completely different could happen. Why aren’t there many people who are “agnostic” about science then? There are those that just outright deny it, but when there is something that has evidence that logically proves the opposite to a certain degree, then we usually aren’t on the fence about it.
    For example, when we drop a ball towards the ground, we would predict that it will fall towards the earth. But there is always the small chance that some object that has a stronger gravitational pull on the ball could come close enough so the ball goes away from the earth. We don’t dwell on that possibility because there is so much evidence that tells us the ball will go towards the earth and that our wild imaginations probably won’t come true.

  • Anne

    Agnosticism is an important step in the road for some people. When someone comes from a strict religious background, it takes time – sometimes years – to shed all of the baggage that background gives a person. I always considered agnosticism a resting place in between the religious background and the journey to complete atheism. These people have done a lot of thinking and reasoning and at the very least walked away from the organized religions that seek to control the masses through delusion.

  • Karmakin

    My school of atheism is that atheism and agosticism, are on different axis. As such the proper description for most atheists is to be an atheist/agnostic. That is, someone who doesn’t believe in a god but understands that proving a negative is impossible.

  • Mr Z

    @Andrew, if you wish to believe that everything is possible, and all possible things should be considered, then you are right. It’s terribly impractical, and quite a load of work. Just because someone claims something, anything, does not mean that it automatically has some kind of possible validity. What we know and generally accept as the way the world works is natural and statistically viable unless someone comes up with proof or evidence showing a need for change. To wit, someone did claim the existence of a god but the proof is not there. On that, we should go back to ‘there is no gods’ baseline thinking until there is some evidence or proof that says ‘wait, maybe that was right… lets look into it’.

    Burden of proof still yokes the person claiming something out of the ordinary. The thought that ‘I don’t know, there might be a god… it seems possible since we don’t know everything’ still requires reason and proof for thinking that way, especially since the actual idea that there is a god is man made, derived from philosophy of stone age men or even earlier men. There might also be an invisible purple dragon living in your garage… right?

    Argue till you are blue in the face, but as long as you are claiming something without proof or evidence it remains up to you to prove it to be true or at least to be worth investigating.

    Simply positing that it’s possible because we do not know all things does not make it any more probable than an invisible purple dragon living in your garage.

    IMO it gets to be mental masturbation… either there is proof or there is not. Historically, claims about the natural world that were counter to societal beliefs were proved, not simply claimed to be possible. Once they were proven everyone had to change their thinking. The round Earth, imperfect Sun, Earth not the center of the universe, and many other issues of scientific value showed religion to be dead wrong. How does this improve the probability that the existence of god might be right since we don’t know everything?

    I know you like to argue, so go ahead….

  • trixr4kids

    I’m an atheist AND an agnostic.

    Atheism is an answer to an ontological question: Do you believe there is a god or gods? (No.)

    Agnosticism is an answer to an epistemological question: Do you think it’s possible to know for sure that nothing exists that could be called god? (No.)

    Atheism and agnosticism are answers to two different questions.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    Mr Z:

    As was mentioned before, logical incoherencies are not possible.

    Next, even if you’re an atheist, you can believe gods are possible. Atheism isn’t saying “God is impossible” (unless you believe, as mentioned before, that god claims represent logical incoherencies.) Rather, for whatever possibility attributed to deities, atheism is a lack of belief in the actuality of those gods.

    Believing that things are possible isn’t impractical, then. It is intellectually honest and thoughtful. The baseline is “I don’t think there are gods.” “There are no gods” is either a linguistically lazy shortcut OR logically unproven conclusion from the reasoning “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”

    You say that burden of proof yokes the person claiming something out the ordinary. But I could easily point out that claiming the nonexistence of something based on the absence of evidence is a claim out of the ordinary (and noticeably disproven). In fact, our advance of science is a history of showing that believing things not to exist just because we have no evidence is arrogant — what is more reasonable is that we don’t have nearly as advanced an understanding of the universe as we think we do.

    Am I saying, then, that we should believe that anything and everything that is *possible* is *actual*? No. I am noting that the baseline is lack of belief, not belief in nonexistence.

    As you say, “Argue till you are blue in the face, but as long as you are claiming something without proof or evidence it remains up to you to prove it to be true or at least to be worth investigating.” Your implied claim “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” not only is without proof or evidence, but has been falsified several times. (Absence of evidence of black swans? No, wait, we just hadn’t gone to Australia yet! Absence of evidence of infrared? No, wait, we just hadn’t developed the tools for it.) Again, not saying this justifies belief in the opposing claim.

  • Hitch

    I don’t like how most people use agnostic these days. I liked how Thomas Huxley defined it. Not as a position with respect to creed, but as a process of critical, evidence-based inquiry that rejects superstition as allowable.

    The main beauty of that defintion is that it’s not defined with respect to onthology and is largely constructive and practical, basically calling agnosticism that we only form beliefs around a solid enough process and that belief stays dynamic and volatile.

    Even then I’m not an agnostic, because to be anything that starts with “a-” is almost by definition a non-position i.e. defined against something that has no basis to form a hypothesis. It doesn’t make sense to define myself against something that doesn’t hold up as credible hypothesis.

    But yet, Dawkins wasn’t helping when he claimed that agnosticism is on the same axis as atheism. It’s not. It’s basically the theist’s view of agnosticism.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Atheism is one answer to the question: “Do you believe in gods?”

    Agnosticism is one answer to the question: “Do you know that gods exist?”

    They are not mutually exclusive. I think that being agnostic is the only honest position to take given that we cannot know if gods exist AND gods are so poorly defined as to make any assessment of their existence all but impossible.

    I also think that theism\atheism is nothing more than an opinion on an unanswerable question. Given that the question is asking for an opinion on something that nobody has ever seen or examined and we don’t even know what it is we’re supposed to have an opinion on then it is a safe bet that atheism is the best answer.

    Of course I would say that.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com/ Mat Wilder

    So technically speaking, agnosticism refers to epistemology (what we know), and atheism is about what exists (ontology). So, as others have pointed out, most atheists would be described most fully by the phrase “agnostic atheist” but that is rather cumbersome in common parlance, and the general public, if they even know what either word means, will probably think of agnostics and atheists as Hemant writes in this post – agnostics will be seen as less confrontational and more wishy-washy, while atheists will be seen as more immoral and militant.

    I like Douglas Adams’ take on atheism – radical atheism – to assure people that he really is serious. There is almost certainly no god. Of course, I myself am somewhat conflicted. I am generally apathetic to the question of god’s existence except socially, because religion has so much power over people’s thinking and their politics. Additionally, I am a noncognitivist about “god” – I don’t think the word refers to anything; it is literally incomprehensible. Just as well to say “arughsfdsh” or “weruhsfd” as “god.”

    Where does that leave me? I prefer atheist because in our society atheism has such a stigma attached to it, that I want to challenge it. I think Hemant is right that socially agnosticism is more acceptable – because it seems to imply that the individual might yet be open to religious belief, while atheism seems to imply that the an individual is not open to future religious belief. I think this is a false picture, of course, but I think it is the way many people think.

  • Willa

    As an atheist, I never understood (and still don’t), this obsessive, nearly aggressive stance that many atheists have against people who label themselves as agnostics.

    I remember many years ago when I was very strongly questioning my beliefs there was this pretentious discussion / argument about the so-called “strong atheist / weak atheist” position – “a weak atheist” being an agnostic. Despite all this bullshit, I nevertheless called myself an agnostic – because that is what I felt at the time.

    And look at the whole language of the argument. It nearly always is a form of pejorative – e.g. weak-atheist, no-balls, etc.

    In a country, like America, where atheists are always whining and moaning about how badly treated they are and how nobody likes them or where they are in the social-pecking-order, you’d think a little bit of “how to win friends and influence people” would go a long way.

    So instead of alienating the type of natural ally that agnostics are, why not take a little bit less of a confrontational stance and embrace them as friends.

    Being agnostic is, after all, one of the many natural steps for people in becoming atheist.

  • Mr Z

    @Andrew S

    WARNING: I’m going to be terse and course. If this offends you, please move on to the next post.

    I’m calling your bluff. The actual idea of gods is BS. If you want to claim they might be possible, prove it. I do NOT have to prove that your claim is wrong, only that you have no evidence or proof. Show me evidence and reason why I should even consider contemplating deities, then we can discuss whether they exist. Until then, you are a crackpot with crackpot claims that I dismiss outright. The very concept of deities and gods is crackpotery. You make the claim, prove it. The burden is on you.

    Sure, you say that because I can’t know everything about the universe it might be possible, but that does not relieve you of the burden of proof. You made the claim, you prove it or go back to living under your rock.

    Be as philosophical and esoteric as you wish, but you are making a claim, so prove it. I say the very concept of a supernatural creator being is a stupid crackpot idea. Keep smoking that weed. You have no evidence, no proof, and your reasoning is … well, unsound.

  • jash

    I remember having come across a blog where someone had put a graphical representation of this agnostic, atheist, theist thing. It would have been a nice thing, where everyone could have found where they stand.

    So yea, I belong to the category of atheist agnostic. As many have explained, I do not believe in a god, but I don’t know.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    Mr Z:

    The thing is, the only one making a claim is you. You are the one claiming gods do not exist. That gods are impossible. That gods are crackpottery. I, on the other hand, have not claimed you should consider deities. I, on the other hand, have not claimed that there are deities.

    You have continued to misunderstand my position at the most basic level, and for a moment,I wonder why that is. I wonder if you are blinded by your inborn biases or instead by some experience you had in life. But I don’t speculate on that too long. Ultimately, I simply regret that this conversation will probably continue to spiral into the ground with your being unable to even relay my position back to me accurately and correctly, much less argue against it cogently.

  • Mr Z

    Well, so much for you arguing within the ‘framework’ of your adversary.. right? You advise doing so, but never manage to pull it off yourself.

    I was very clear on what I understand of the universe regarding deities. You would rather twist things into philosophy and discourse than answer the simple parts, the parts that come first.

    You never claim anything except that others are wrong… right? You just like to argue.

    I’m not even making a claim. It is you who claim something outside of the known and understandable. I do not claim invisible beings or magic skydaddies. I simply say that your idea of such is a crackpot idea and you have consistently failed to show reason or evidence of why I should even consider contemplation of such things. I give no credence to your crackpot idea because you give no reason or evidence to even think of doing so. You simply twist words, wax philosophically, and argue that I’m not giving your ideas equal time. You have equal time… so show some evidence. That’s your equal time.

    I do not misunderstand your position. You simply like to argue. I suspect that you are a junior at Liberty University with a chip on your shoulders. I really don’t care what you think about me. Either you can show sound reason and evidence to support your position or go back to living under your rock.

  • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

    @Hitch
    “But yet, Dawkins wasn’t helping when he claimed that agnosticism is on the same axis as atheism. It’s not. It’s basically the theist’s view of agnosticism.”

    My copy of TGD is still across the pond so I can’t verify this, but I do recall Dawkins making a comment that Huxleyan agnosticism was basically off the 7-point scale he used.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    I understand why someone would argue “There is no god”. But because I also understand how and why someone can argue against that one too, I point out the deficiencies.

    Ultimately, though, I find what you “suspect” I actually am to be amusing. Liberty University, eh? that’s a new one…

  • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

    The first thing to take into consideration is that a large number of people simply redefine terms to suit their purposes. For example, I’ve seen the definition “not knowing any god exists, but being open to being proven wrong” given to describe ‘atheist’, ‘weak atheist’, ‘agnostic’, ‘deist’ even ‘apatheist’ by people claiming the label.

    It’s also worth noting that while ‘agnostic’ is a label people claim for themselves, ‘atheist’ has historically been externally applied to them by the religious to the ‘other’, sometimes even to believers in other gods. It used to be used as an insult, with its connotations determined and implied by the theists (or ‘agnostics’) who used it, an echo of which behavior is echoed, I think, in Rachul’s comment above.

    Personally, I called myself an agnostic at 15, as shorthand for “I don’t fully accept all this religious stuff I’m hearing, so it would be impudent of me to describe myself as a Christian, even though I still think there’s a god in the most general sense” At the time, ‘atheist’ (atheos, atheofovos in my native Greek) was for me still a synonym for ‘wicked’, ‘amoral’, ‘immoral’.

    I think the fact that ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ have very different histories is a large factor in the different approaches to the term by people, both theists and atheists (where ‘theists’ & ‘atheists’ in the last sentence refer to belief and lack of belief in gods respectively.)

  • Greg

    I used to be an agnostic.

    Then I took a basic philosophy course and learnt what the terms actually meant.

    Then I realised I was an atheist.

    I think there are two main reasons people identify as agnostics rather than atheists:

    1) They don’t know what the terms actually mean.

    2) They want to avoid the stigma attached to atheism, and yet still remain honest about what they think… Of course, doing so merely reinforces the stigma that atheism has.

    It is interesting to note that what ‘agnostics’ claim ‘atheists’ believe is ludicrous – how can someone ‘believe no god exists in any shape or form’ when new gods get (poorly) defined constantly? I’ve heard some people claim that ‘god is energy’ or ‘god is love’. If they want to change god into a synonym for those terms, then sure, god exists. (Just not a theistic god…)

    Rather, however, than questioning whether they have the terms right, they insist on claiming this is what atheists believe. Sorry, but for me, that is arrogance.

  • http://www.sketchsepahi.com Heini Reinert

    I call myself an agnostic atheist (or atheist agnostic) mainly because I am a philosophy geek. It allows me to place myself on a spectrum that is jointly epistemological and jointly belief-oriented. To me the issues of knowledge and belief are separate. There are plenty of things I believe without thereby having knowledge of them. Regarding gods in general I do not have knowledge of their non-existence any more than I have knowledge of the non-existence of Russell’s teapot. Yet I feel completely justified in my lack of belief when it comes to either. Similarly I should gladly allow believers to call themselves agnostic theists inasmuch as they believe in their god but don’t claim that belief amounts to knowledge. The question of what you know simply doesn’t address what you believe. If someone asks you “Do you believe in God?” and you answer “I’m an agnostic” you simply haven’t answered the question. You gave a knowledge answer when asked a belief question. It’s a yes/no question. Either you believe or you don’t.

  • Claudia

    I’m too lazy (so shoot me) to go through all 77 comments, but I’m betting there are plenty of self-proclaimed agnostics defending their positicion as the most rigorous because they admit that there is the possibility of a god even if there is no current evidence.

    However from my experience self-identified atheists are not people who believe on faith that there is no god and self-identified agnostics are not (usually) people who aren’t really sure either way. In practice atheists and agnostics have, when you get down into it, the exact same beliefs most of the time; there is no evidence for a god or gods, the possibility exists but in practice I behave as if none does until some evidence comes along.

    The difference is that (many( agnostics think that being an atheist means a positive belief in non-existence, when I’ve yet to find a single atheist that holds this position. Not even Dawkins or Hitchens goes that far. Atheists simply don’t feel the need to express, first and foremost, that there’s always a possibility and opt instead for treating god as any other totally uncredible claim, nonbelief until evidence arises. God, dragons and fairies all have the same amount of evidence in their favor, and therefore I will treat them exactly the same, by nonbelief until evidence arises. Jumping to remind someone that you can’t be sure solely in the case of god but not for other things is a case of special treatment to religion.

  • http://www.meetup.com/av-freethinkers/ and then some

    I call myself an atheist which I define as a considered rejection of theism. Theism, in my opinion, is not consistent with the observable universe, nor necessary to live a loving and meaningful life. Do I claim to have absolute knowledge? No. Do I claim to be able “prove” there are no gods? No. Could I be wrong? Yes. Am I open to evidence and argument? Yes, within certain parameters.

    I really don’t care how people react to the term, and wouldn’t want to resort to using the word “agnostic” simply to spare someone’s feelings or sensibilities.

  • http://melliferax.wordpress.com Melliferax

    Wow. 80-ish comments! I won’t go into the question of agnosticism here since I did it at length in a rather long blog post titled Why I’m Not Agnostic a while back. Suffice to say I don’t quite see the use of agnosticism and I’m inclined to agree with Greg a couple of comments above — although that’s assuming I have the same understanding of the terms as him, which is obviously not necessarily the case…

  • http://barefootbum.blogspot.com The Barefoot Bum

    I see the difference as primarily political. As long as were not actually at war, it’s entirely respectable to refuse take a position in the public debate.

    There are, however, a lot of stupid reasons to label oneself an agnostic.

  • http://blueollie.wordpress.com ollie

    Interesting. Actually, I am agnostic but call myself an atheist to keep people from trying to persuade me. :)

    The way I understand it: “atheist” means “I don’t believe in deities” which is certainly true in my case. I am open to new evidence or evidence that I haven’t seen.

    I am a “strong atheist” with respect to the gods of the religions that I’ve heard of; to me believing in these deities is absurd.

    I completely reject any deity that can be invoked to perform some sort of magic or miracle on someone’s behalf.

    But there may be some sort of grand universal creative force or whatever that doesn’t interfere with the events of this universe. I am agnostic with respect to something like that (is it even knowable) though I see that as wishful thinking.

  • Adam Tjaavk

    Agnostics: muddleheaded or lily-livered theists or atheists.

    _____

  • littlejohn

    If you believe that the question of god’s existence cannot, by its very nature, be settled, then you are an agnostic.
    It’s a perfectly legitimate position.
    I, for example, am agnostic about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. We may eventually find an answer, but for now we can only say we don’t know.

  • Miko

    charon:

    If you say, “we cannot know whether or not a god exists,” then a scientist will say, “you just said no gods exist.” … If there is absolutely no way, even in theory, to distinguish a universe with a god from a universe without one, then by definition such a “god” has no consequences, no influence, no importance, and really, no existence, in any useful ontology.

    That’s not necessarily true. It’s possible that things exist but that we could have absolutely no way of verifying their existence and possible even that those things could still influence our part of the universe.

    Assuming the rate of expansion of the universe remains positive, there will eventually come a time when all other galaxies will be so far away from our own that we won’t be able to perceive them by any means (as we’ll be travelling apart at such tremendous speeds that no telescope could even theoretically capture light from the other galaxy). Any scientist who concluded that the other galaxies no longer existed just because we could no longer directly prove their existence would be an idiot. Now, as for influence, quantum entangled particles can influence each other without regard to distance, so if we were to create some entangled particles now, and send them off to another galaxy via spaceship now, then at that future time there would be particles in another galaxy that could influence our galaxy despite the fact that we would be unable to observe that galaxy in any way (and since the quantum entanglement would be undetectable without observing both particles, this would not provide us a way of proving the existence of the other galaxies).

    At this point, the agnosticism analogue (an epistemic position) about the existence of the other galaxies will be empirically obvious (although who knows: perhaps religions will rise up that claim to have revelatory knowledge of the existence of other galaxies) and near-universally held. However, the atheism analogue (a metaphysical position) will be unprovable either way and so a matter of personal opinion (although that opinion would be based on epistemic considerations of how one determines reality). As such, a scientist in such a universe would probably describe herself as “a strong agnostic and a weak atheist with regard to the existence of other galaxies” (being, as it happens, correct on the first point and incorrect on the second), which is exactly the position that a reasonable, scientifically literate person would take with regard to a deity based on the evidence available today.

  • http://www.mandikaye.com Mandi

    Since I walked away from Christianity 3 years ago or so, I’ve frequently called myself an “apathetic agnostic.”

    Agnostic because, while I definitely do not believe in the Christian God, I cannot say for certain that there is or is not some creative force out there.

    Apathetic because, after the long fight within myself it took to leave Christianity, I’m too tired to care if there’s anything out there.

  • Claudia

    As such, a scientist in such a universe would probably describe herself as “a strong agnostic and a weak atheist with regard to the existence of other galaxies” (being, as it happens, correct on the first point and incorrect on the second), which is exactly the position that a reasonable, scientifically literate person would take with regard to a deity based on the evidence available today.

    Speaking as a scientifically literate person I can assure you that is not the way this scientist nor any other scientist I know would approach the matter. Though the details can be very complex, the core alternatives are not; either there is a body of evidence in favor of an assertion or there isn’t. If the available knowledge about the universe gave us no reason to infer there must be other galaxies, belief in such galaxies would be considered unjustified. If there is reason to believe such galaxies must exist due to evidences other than our visual perception, then they would be considered valid. A better analogy, from what little I know of physics, is dark matter.

    If there is no evidence whatsoever for an assertion, then it is considered invalid. Mind you, this is not the same thing as eliminating scientific doubt. If there is something that is unfounded for the moment, but is possible and, almost as importantly, testable, then of course it is open to inquiry. But you’re not going to find a lot of sympathy for assertions that are totally without evidence, without analogous phenomena that would make them likely and without a means of testing in scientific circles.

    Put another way, I’ve yet to find a paleontologist who, when asked if there were bunnies in the Pre-Cambrian, ever said “Well, we can’t ever be 100% sure there weren’t, because maybe we haven’t found them yet, you never know, science is doubting after all, what is knowlesge, really?” rather than raised eyebrows and a curt “No”.

  • http://www.foundationbeyondbelief.org Dale McGowan

    Russell’s full position (from “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?” 1947):

    “I never know whether I should say ‘Agnostic’ or whether I should say ‘Atheist.’ It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.

    “On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

    “None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.

    “Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.”

  • Noshwat Somal

    If atheism means you live without god, then agnosticism means you live without Gnosticism, which is a state of knowing the unknowable.

    Both terms are distinct and useful.

    I consider myself an agnostic period because the term implies atheism. By claiming agnosticism I am saying that I do not believe we can know that which is unknowable. Adding atheist would be redundant. There are plenty of atheists that use Feng Shui for their apartments…

    I do not think there are any agnostic theists because if you’re a theist you are claiming to know things that are unknowable. Spiritual atheists do exist, though, and they are called Buddhists or ancestor worshippers.

  • JD

    Mr. Z., it seems to me that you’re the one being an adversarial dick for the sake of being an adversarial dick, making repeated personal attacks in a single post. I don’t know who you’re helping, but I don’t think it’s anyone but yourself.

  • http://zackfordblogs.com ZackFord

    A few weeks ago, Unreasonable Faith had an epic thread about Agnosticism:

    http://unreasonablefaith.com/2010/05/05/qotd-atheists-and-agnostics/

    I used some of the ideas shared there to develop a way of assessing what different words mean. I used the context of religious privilege, because while many claim it’s all an argument about “know v. believe,” there definitely seems to be a strong sociological component to how people identify.

    I’d love folks’ thoughts on my proposed model:

    http://zackfordblogs.com/2010/05/atheism-vs-agnosticism-in-the-context-of-religious-privilege/

  • Jim

    I saw a profile for a girl on a dating website where she proclaimed her belief as “Agnostic”. On the question “Would you date an atheist?” She answered “No”.

    Wait. What? So, even among agnostics, “atheist” is a dirty word. Good grief. No wonder nobody emails me.

    I see lots of posts here about arrogance of atheists in thinking there “can be no god”. This is a good example of not even understanding the views of 99% of atheists out there. Like Claudia mentioned above, not even Hitchens et. al. believe this. It’s purely “I don’t believe god exists”, not “I believe god doesn’t exist.” These are DIFFERENT positions to take. To the agnostics out there, please do not assume your local self-proclaimed atheist holds to the latter statement. It is extremely unlikely that they do.

    I always explain it this way. Atheists are basically agnostic in that “we don’t know”. However, when you throw evidence and probability into the mix, then it’s exceedingly unlikely (yet still not technically impossible) that god exists.

  • Cinephage

    Criticism of agnosticism ignores the historicity of the word “atheist,” and contemporary perceptions of its use. Atheist replies “But that’s not how I use it!” This ignores the arbitrariness of definitions and the role of consensus in establishing their use.

    Personally, I’m comfortable with atheist and agnostic. The ontological/epistemological distinction isn’t as clever as some people think it is, and it’s not a satisfactory explanation of how both words are used in practice. Presenting an etymological analysis is not a sufficient argument.

    How did Huxley understand agnosticism?

    “Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle …Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

    Personally, I tire of these debates because they’re rarely productive. To the atheist I reply that atheism presupposes a coherency that that does not exist in theism, that we can actually point to a non-contradictory god being that makes a lick of sense. The term “God” to me is meaningless, unlike say the term Unicorn.

    A version of non-cognitivism perhaps? But without the verificationist baggage. Atheism itself has too much baggage. It has been used against Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Deists, and Pantheists, just to name a few.

    If you want to rely on etymology, you won’t fund much support for your particular definition of atheism that way. If you want to rely on support within the atheists community, you won’t find much support there either. There are a range of atheists who vary according to how they perceive the word. Certainly, you should not look for consensus outside of the atheist community as you well know.

    Academia then? Philosophy of religion? Ha! Philosopher winces and begins to turn away.

    As for scientists, who cares what they think? Okay, I do, but that’s beside the point. Scientists need only concern themselves with methodology, when so many of these discussions turn on the non-methodological.

  • http://wellmaybenot.blogspot.com/ Danielle Gaither

    I think a more interesting question is: why does it bother you so much that others choose to identify as agnostic?

    As Willa pointed out, agnostic-bashing only serves to alienate people who otherwise agree with us on many things. Also, trying to force people into a particular label sounds so…dogmatic.

    More thoughts on this at my blog, which can be reached by clicking my name.

  • Alice

    Oi. An atheist without any balls is not an agnostic! An atheist without balls is a female atheist!

    I don’t like belittling agnostics for not taking a stance, calling them baby atheist sounds like the “it’s just a phase” argument a lot of us have to deal with from self-satisfied theists who can’t defend their own arguments any more. The group of people who call themselves agnostic seems to be as diverse as the groups of people who call themselves atheists or theists. While some of them are just atheists who don’t want to deal with the social consequences, there are also those who just don’t care about the question, those who feel the question has equal support on both sides , those who are closer to theism than atheism etc. It would be inaccurate to characterise ALL agnostics as this or that. You have to deal with their claims on an individual basis or you’re no better than the people who define atheists as scary and immoral without knowing what an actual atheist is really like. That is not a way I want to treat anyone, especially someone who is attempting to take the most honest stance they can.

  • Dan

    Why does anyone insist on Belief being the defining factor? If a god exists, it would have to be self-possessed enough to maintain independence of our uninformed lack of belief. If a god is as trivial as we are, we have bigger problems, despite the Greek precedent being just that. I’d say all of the faithful believe out of fear of the impossible consequences, as self-evident truth could get by with a lot less violence. That written, let’s encourage agnostic atheists, agnostic theists and skeptics all as part of the same family. We could take lessons from religion by growing together rather than as the oft-mentioned herd of cats. Save the labels of division for religious denominations.

  • Hitch

    Cafeeine. First Dawkins describes Huxley accurately but then he weaves him into his rebuke of agnosticism.

    Let me quote both passages:

    “Later on Huxley went on to explain that agnostics do not have a creed, not even a negative one.”

    And he quotes the key passage. Then:

    “To a scientist these are noble words, and one doesn’t criticise T. H. Huxley lightly. But Huxley in his concentration upon the absolute impossibility of proving or disproving God, seems to have been ignoring the shading of probability.”

    Then he defines his probabilistic model. Now it’s not 100% clear if he, by acknowledging that per Huxley “it’s not a creed” agrees that it’s another dimension, or that by saying that Huxley overlook the probability model, it really belongs within it. My reading was the latter, because else the rebuke towards Huxley does not work.

    The probabilistic model is really a very unhelpful one. I have never met anyone who would define agnosticism as a 50% chance that god exists. But that’s another matter.

    What Dawkins conflates is that “not knowing” and “50% chance” are completely different things.

    Even with lots of evidence I cannot tell you with what probability very scientific things like the moment of the big bang are true. The only settings where we can establish probabilities is where we have frequent observation and hence can piggie-back on the law of large numbers to establish an experimental probability distribution.

    Here an example of how these concepts are separate:

    I don’t know if I win the lottery, but it has a chance of x%. x is completely independent of my state of knowing. In the case of lottery x is published and we believe that there is no biasing. In the case of some unproven hypothesis we virtually never have even an estimated for the probability.

    I personally consider the probability model for this very reason harmful. It actually undermines people who hold a principled position by conflating them into a position they don’t hold.

    Let me phrase this differently. An agnostic can perfectly well say:

    I don’t know if X exist and I also don’t know with what probability X exist.

    In fact I think this is the correct and default position virtually every agnostic I know would hold. This isn’t a weaker position than atheism, in fact in a sense it is stronger because it rejects more than just the god hypothesis but rejects anything that doesn’t follow the method.

    Instead we (and Dawkins) have allowed agnostic to be frames as the weaker position, something theistic apologists like. “Oh you concede that there might be a god! Tada, I scored a concession!” Which is of course not at all what is going on.

    Agnostics certainly can make claims with respect to evidence. Dawkins does kind of corner that by constructing the poverty of agnosticism as the inappropriate withholding of agnostics of considering the evidence sufficient to take a stance with respect to the god hypothesis.

    The second problem is the definition with reference to something else. “a-” and “anti-” is with reference to one or more hypothesis that we haven’t chosen. They automatically imply some concept of what god means. I don’t think that is a sensible definition.

    There is no egg-shell dance around other unfounded and unproven hypothesis. Noone has nuanced arguments about whether they are a-LochNessMonster or agnostic with respect to LockNessMonster or if they are anti-LockNessMonster. It is because the proposed hypothesis isn’t taken seriously to begin with. Most self-labelings in our group are reactive to a position that is unfounded. I am strongly inclined to outright reject that. I’m not an a-LockNessMonster because I don’t define my position or identity against a hypothesis someone else chose and on top is un- or ill-founded.

    Finally to the god hypothesis itself. I think it’s very clearly not a scientific hypothesis. The scriptures poses poorly formulated statements for falsification. Advocates disagree what the right or stable testable hypothesis are and so forth.

    Here too I think Dawkins concedes more than makes sense.

    If in my courses students propose a hypothesis that is not properly formulated it will not be accepted as scientific hypothesis and they are send back to try again, with pointers to prior evidence to help strengthen the starting hypothesis.

    But both atheist and agnostic ultimately are fine labels for discussion. They already concede that there is even some core that we can talk about not being true, or not being confirmed by some method.

    Ultimately the question of religions and superstitions (much better defined categories than god) is the real question. So nonreligious and naturalist are much more direct labels for what most of us likely are. if it’s a socio-political critique then it does perhaps make sense to say one is fully or contextually anti-religious.

    To summerize some of this for TLDR:

    1) god hypothesis is ill-formed
    2) atheism and agnosticism and other labels that reference theistic positions often imply that one can sensibly even talk about 1)
    3) Religion and superstition are observable, social constructs, hence better for relative definitions
    4) Religion and superstition have socio-political implications and one can additionally take a political stance with respect to them.

    So really there are many different axis at work here. For example Hitchen’s anti-theism is very heavy on the political dimension. Whereas Douglas Adams “militant atheism” seems to me much more about the strength of rejecting theism, but also political.

    But ultimately, when taking on labels and argue onthology or epistemology of a concept we first have to clarify what that concept even is:

    “Which god? What are the hypothesis that delineate this concept? Why is it formed and how can I test that the hypothesis has any veracity right now?”

    See if we say “god doesn’t exist” it’s like saying that we even understood and agreed on a sensible hypothesis of god. I don’t think we have.

  • Jasel

    To me it sounds like a lot of people use “agnostic” as a substitute for “apathetic”

  • http://cafewitteveen.wordpress.com Jeremy Witteveen

    I prefer “lazy atheist” and that agnostics deserve condescension.

  • http://zackfordblogs.com ZackFord

    I think one of the important issues to consider is solidarity. While not all atheists actively work against the force of religion, many of us do. Those who identify as agnostic (for whatever reason) seem to humor the very ideas of superstition that many of us oppose.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    FYI, John Wilkins has a discussion on atheism and agnosticism. Basically, his stance is that god-belief is so often expressed in such a fashion as to be immune to empirical falsification, which means that as a general rule, there isn’t a way to answer the question as to whether God exists.

    As for myself, I’m inclined to take Bertrand Russell’s line on the matter. “Atheism” is a rough-and-ready approximation for my beliefs, but if pressed, I’m in no real position to say definitively whether Zeus or Vishnu or Yahweh exist.

  • Jon Peterson

    I apologize if this has already been linked, however I find it to be an interesting analysis of the relation between (A)Theism and (A)Gnosticism.

    This article recently posted at freethinker.co.uk shows why (A)Gnosticism is independent of (A)Theism, and how most atheists (myself included) would actually define themselves as both.

    Admittedly, the definition used for (A)Gnosticism is not in line with the English denotation, but as the article explains, it is rather more in line with the modern connotation carried in common usage.

  • Seeker

    Well, I think that calling yourself agnostic is pretty much like asking “which god do you mean” when people ask you if you believe in god.

    I refuse to answer “yes or no” questions because they leave too much to the imagination of the listener.

    Hemant, you asked why not agnostic about Thor or Zeus but only for god. Well, the point is that I am an atheist when it comes to every god of every religion because said gods have specific characteristics that constitute logical fallacies.

    That however is my limit in saying “I strongly believe in their non-existence”. Beyond that, I have to say that I do not know.

    Nor do I accept the term supernatural to describe what most people mean by it. Everything is either part of nature or inexistent. I do however accept that our knowledge is limited and that, what is today thought supernatural, can tomorrow be explained by science.

    If someone absolutely must label me, the most accurate term would be “non-religious, agnostic, open-minded atheist”

  • Anonymous

    You hit the nail on the head man. I personally hate the term. It’s just so wishy washy and noncommittal. It’s exactly like someone saying, “Well I don’t go to church or pray or read the Bible but I am spiritual,” when asked if they believe in God. In fact a lot of people I’ve seen who label themselves agnostic have said something like that.

    And to those of you who call yourself agnostic because you say “we can’t know”… Of course we can’t know. Only an idiot would think we can know.

  • Frisbee Guy

    Well, it makes me “cringe” when people say that they are an atheist – as if you’ve come to a decent conclusion on a question that has perplexed humans for millenia (no doubt in your mind you have). My stance might be wishy-washy to you (to me, it is the better more humble choice). I understand just fine why you take the “atheist” stance, but why not just leave the agnostics alone? Your position comes across as just plain arrogant.

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    “Ask yourself one simple question: “Do I believe in a god or gods?”

    If the answer is ANYTHING other than “Yes”….you are an A-Theist. Period!”

    I agree. We must all not believe the same thing.

  • Alexrkr7

    I’m surprised so many people (especially here) still don’t understand the terms agnostic and atheist (especially you defensive agnostics)

    Agnosticism/gnosticism deals with knowledge and atheism/theism deal with belief An agnostic can believe in a god (theist) or not believe (atheist). It is not a humble position or a position between theism/atheism. It doesn’t answer the question do you believe in god(s).

    You don’t believe in leprechauns, FSM or Gary the giant pink space bunny (atheist) that doesn’t mean there could be no possibility of them (agnostic)

    The way I see agnostics use it most often is for the exact reason Hemant said, you have no balls. If you’re an agnostic and you’re here then you’re most likely an atheist; by definition. Stop trying to avoid it like the plague.

  • Aaron

    I called myself an agnostic the night before my heart surgery so that my religious mother wouldn’t burst into tears.
    She actually said “You’re not an a-a-a-a-theist, are you?”,
    but I am an atheist.
    I don’t like the term though, because of the well known limitations of trying to define something by what it isn’t.

  • Snap

    “no one says they’re agnostic about the Flying Spaghetti Monster”

    And why would anyone say such a ridiculous thing!? I mean, evidence he has touched us with His Noodly Appendage is everywhere. One would have to be mad to say such a thing. Mad I say!!!

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Ask yourself one simple question: “Do I believe in a god or gods?”

    If the answer is ANYTHING other than “Yes” .you are an A-Theist. Period!

    That presumes that the answer to “Do I believe in a god or gods?” is a yes-or-no question, rather than a question like “Have you stopped beating your wife?” where neither a “yes” nor a “no” are accurate.

    Alexkr7: “The way I see agnostics use it most often is for the exact reason Hemant said, you have no balls.”

    Spare me the ill-informed opinion on agnostics. If you actually have scientific surveys indicating the reasons why people use the term “agnostic” as opposed to “atheist,” let’s see them. If all you have is a biased sample from personal experience or from what you’ve heard from assorted grapevines, then you have no business concluding one way or the other where self-identified agnostics have “no balls.”

  • stephanie

    Nonsense, it’s nothing but ego that makes an atheist think agnosticism has anything to do with believing or not believing in god(s).
    I was an agnostic for at least a decade on my way into atheism. In many ways I still am. Agnosticism is the belief that we can not know for certain. That still works with my belief that there is nothing. I’m well aware that no matter how much calculus and astrophysics I absorb into my little monkey-brain (and, yes, I know we’re primates, not monkeys) there is no way I can comprehend the entirety of the universe. But that doesn’t stop me from holding logical inquiry and accepting the results about orbitals of nearby planets or magnitude of known stars.

  • Solrokr

    I consider myself a strong agnostic but not by wikipedia’s standards for everyone that’s decided to quote that.

    Atheism at its core, for as long as I’ve known and as yet for me to be convinced otherwise, is the belief that a God/gods doesn’t exist. My main disapproval of this argument is the word “belief” because I choose not to believe it/they don’t exist and I choose not to believe they do exist. I choose not to believe, period, in anything that is supernatural unless proven natural.

    I’m no mathematical wiz, so I don’t assume to know the probability of a god existing, but I do know that all modern gods have an astronomically minuscule probability of existing because of how specific they are supposed to be. I regard them with the same ratio of existence of that of the FSM, the Teapot and Pink Unicorns, if not lower. They are not feasible ideas and thus are given no credit (Except a laugh here and there for the fictional ones… see what I did there?).

    When arguing atheism, people tend to cite the fact that agnosticism and atheism go hand in hand as symbiotic, but I disagree – Agnostic-Theist and Agnostic-Atheist both contradict agnosticism in the fact that they both believe. More-so, modern atheists have begun to ascribe themselves as not making a stance of unbelief but rather being skeptical, aligning themselves with the Scientific Method… but if that were the case, and I know this has been addressed on this site before, what word would describe people that vehemently BELIEVE that there is no god/gods? They exist and now their title is being modified to fit a new set of ideas so that the atheist’s stance is more scientific and less about belief, because people have found the fundamental logical flaws in it.

    Agnostic does have a weakness to it and that weakness is a lack of reading comprehension. It is misused by so many people and weakened by people that use it as a middle ground between making a choice and avoiding one, as well as people that use it as a misc. category for “spiritual.”

    Personally, I’ve always found agnosticism to be the closest idea to the Scientific Method. It is impartial, open to being changed and contradicted, but still powerfully rooted in reality. Atheism and Theism are beliefs, and I don’t want a belief. I want cold, hard reality and nothing else. Prove to me there is a god, prove to me there is no god, or shut the fuck up.

    Also, know that people like me are the ones standing next to you at rallies and protests. Just because someone defines themselves as an agnostic does not mean their resolve to disrupt the ridiculous is any less than your own. Secularism is the best thing for everyone and until the church and religious beliefs are put in their place, cursory and mitigated by laws that weed out destructive behavior, I know that I will personally fight the good fight. You may think I don’t have balls because I don’t feel the same way about definitions as you, but I think you’ve still got lingering sentiments in religion if that’s your mentality. Open your mind, because you remind me of them.

  • Alexrkr7

    @J. J. Ramsey: Awwww, look at the sensitive little agnostic getting all upset, they’re so cute this way.

    J.J. I wasn’t making the objective claim that all agnostics call themselves such for the reason given, I think I made it perfectly clear this was indeed from personal interactions with agnostics, not denying that in the least. Show me the scientific evidence that creationists are ignorant and/or dishonest. See the problem with jumping down my throat?

    “That presumes that the answer to “Do I believe in a god or gods?” is a yes-or-no question, rather than a question like “Have you stopped beating your wife?” where neither a “yes” nor a “no” are accurate.”

    That has to be the worst analogy ever, I’m going to be amused reading your explanation as to how these two questions are at all the same… sophistic wanking in 3…2…1… take it away J.J.

  • Nathan

    I am a church going man. I am curious about the atheist’s sudden need to congregate. it seems that Atheists want the community that religious groups have without the dogma/doctrines of religion. Self proclaimed atheists are, in a sense, religious. They have a strong faith that God does not exist. Agnostic is a valuable term because it identifies the opinion of one who does not have the faith of the atheist to say “I have no maker and will not be judged by God” nor do they have the faith of the Christian to say, “The Lord is my shepherd; his will be done.” The agnostic is not a cowardly atheist. He sees the earth is too organized to be here by chance, and yet cannot believe that God is really there and in control.

  • JimG

    I don’t know about gods, but the performance of a few atheists on here does point to the persistent influence of one character from Greek mythology: Narcissus.

  • Mr Z

    Aaron – “I don’t like the term though, because of the well known limitations of trying to define something by what it isn’t.”

    I’m not certain that I understood the intent of your comment, but my first thoughts are: I am an atheist and I’m not trying to define anything by what it isn’t. The very concept of gods and supernatural beings is an indefensible supposition, a philosophical toy. I can easily say that I believe no such thing, and won’t until someone can show credible evidence of gods or supernatural beings, preferably such said being having a press conference on all networks simultaneously around the globe. All that I know of the world/universe indicates that the existence of supernatural beings as mankind has defined them has a probability of actuality that is so close to zero that it would be difficult to measure, and there is almost that amount of reason to try to measure it.

    The ploy of saying it’s possible they exist because we don’t know for sure they don’t is weak, and some would argue dishonest. It’s the same as saying my wild supposition is right because you can’t prove it’s wrong, no matter how unlikely it seems.

    This is not defining anything, rather it’s the rejection of wild supposition because it has no evidence or support. This is the logical thing to do for anything else in life, but when that supposition is about supernatural beings people complain if you don’t pretend their idea has some validity. Imagine what would happen if scientists complained loudly that nobody is taking their wild suppositions seriously because they have no evidence or support for them.

    Why should religion/gods/deities be any different than a ‘cure for cancer’ or ‘the fountain of youth’ or ‘life on other planets’ in that respect? Many would find all these highly desirable but consider the differences in belief, evidence, and probability.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Alexrkr7: “sophistic wanking in 3…2…1…”

    Ooh, well poisoning. Lovely.

    Alexrkr7: “Show me the scientific evidence that creationists are ignorant and/or dishonest. See the problem with jumping down my throat?”

    Right. A long series of court cases, archives of the talk.origins newsgroups, and several books documenting the subject of creationists and their history is totally equivalent to your biased personal experiences. Ok, to be fair, the court cases, etc., aren’t scientific evidence per se, but they are a lot more comprehensive and representative than your small and biased sample. I jumped down your throat because you chose to make a claim about agnostics based on insufficient knowledge.

    Alexrkr7: “That has to be the worst analogy ever, I’m going to be amused reading your explanation as to how these two questions are at all the same”

    The questions are similar in that on their face, they seem to demand yes-or-no answers. “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is a classic example of a yes-or-no question where neither “yes” or “no” is a adequate answer. Now in the case of that question, a “yes” or a “no” is inadequate because the question is loaded, but for the question, “Do I believe in a god or gods?”, the reason a yes-or-no answer is inadequate is different.

    Think about the typical four-part taxonomy of “gnostic atheist”, “gnostic theist”, “agnostic atheist”, and “agnostic theist”. Now being a “gnostic atheist” makes sense. If one thinks one knows that God doesn’t exist, then obviously it makes sense to not believe God exists, since if you know something, then you believe it as well. That’s banally obvious. Similarly, being a “gnostic theist” makes sense, since if one thinks one knows that God exists, then obviously one believes that God exists. Ok, so far, this is trivial.

    What about an “agnostic theist,” someone who doesn’t know that God exists but believes in him anyway? That’s kind of strange if you think about it. If you don’t think you have enough warrant to know that something is true, then how do you even believe it’s true? Ok, one can say that it’s a leap of faith, a choice to believe, but that’s the sort of thing we’d prefer to discourage. (Accommodationists, like me, may put up with such a thing so long as it remains harmless in practice, but that doesn’t mean we think it’s a good idea.)

    Now, let’s look at an “agnostic atheist”, someone who doesn’t know that God exists and and doesn’t believe that God exists. If you think about it, that’s about as strange as the case of the agnostic theist. If you don’t think you have enough warrant to know that something is false, then how do you even believe it’s false? Why formulate a belief about something about which one has insufficient knowledge? Isn’t that something that we criticize the agnostic theist for doing?

    Barring leaps of faith, a belief that something does or doesn’t exist entails thinking that one has enough knowledge to determine whether something does or doesn’t exist. Hence–again, barring leaps of faith–asking whether someone believes in gods entails the assumption that one has sufficient knowledge to know whether gods exist. If one lacks such knowledge, then one has no business forming a belief, and one then shouldn’t give a straight answer to the question, “Do you believe in gods?”

  • Willa

    Geez!!

    Why are some atheists so obsessed with this damn “agnostic” label?

    Christians obsess about jews, muslims, hymens, homosexuals and sex.

    Muslims obsess about jews, chrsitians, hymens, homosexuals and sex.

    Atheists, it seems, obsess about jews, muslims, christians and agnostics.

    Guys, “agnostic” is just a label – most of us go through this at some stage.

    There’s no need to be insulting. Agnostics are our natural allies.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    re: J.J. Ramsey

    Now, let’s look at an “agnostic atheist”, someone who doesn’t know that God exists and and doesn’t believe that God exists. If you think about it, that’s about as strange as the case of the agnostic theist. If you don’t think you have enough warrant to know that something is false, then how do you even believe it’s false? Why formulate a belief about something about which one has insufficient knowledge? Isn’t that something that we criticize the agnostic theist for doing?

    Problem. “Not believing” that God exists is not
    “believing that something is false”. Your argument might be ok if someone said “I believe God doesn’t exist,” but the argument is…most people who claim to be atheists aren’t saying that. Rather, they are pointing out that they are not convinced that he does exist.

    If one lacks such knowledge, then one has no business forming a belief, and one then shouldn’t give a straight answer to the question, “Do you believe in gods?”

    The first part is right, but the second part doesn’t follow.

    If one lacks such knowledge (and doesn’t rely on an assumption by faith), then one has no business forming a belief. If one doesn’t form a belief, then he lacks a belief. Therefore, “Do you believe in gods?” is easily answered: “No, I do not believe.”

    Now, let’s look at a different question. “Do you believe there are no gods?” Without knowledge (or trust in an assumption), I agree, one has no business forming a belief. So, answer no here too. However, an atheist doesn’t have to answer yes to this question (in other words, he does not have to have the belief that gods do not exist). He only needs to lack belief in deities (e.g., no to the former question).

  • Tak

    I called myself agnostic for a few years before getting comfortable with the word atheist.

    I DO take issue with perpetual, self-righteous agnostics though. There really is only so much evidence available and after reviewing the info and finding that the evidence for gods existence is practically nill the position that we can’t draw a conclusion based on our available evidence looks pretty indefensible from where I stand. Calling atheists arrogant for coming to a conclusion based on the lack of supporting evidence for the claim god exists seems as reasonable as if I went around calling people arrogant because they don’t believe in my invisible pink garage dragon even though there is a remote possibility that he is real despite the lack of supporting evidence.

  • Alexrkr7

    @ J.J. “Ooh, well poisoning. Lovely.”

    You make it so easy…as for the rest wank wank wank. Too busy today to care to respond but I’m glad I could have wasted your time. And before you pat yourself on the back I don’t usually do this as I care about reality and not falling prey to delusion; but I honestly don’t have the time nor the patience for idiotic sensitive wankers like yourself. I’ll leave it to others to wreck your pathetic grasp of reality.

    Wank on good sir.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Andrew S:

    Problem. “Not believing” that God exists is not
    “believing that something is false”. Your argument might be ok if someone said “I believe God doesn’t exist,”

    The problem is that most atheists really do mean “I believe God doesn’t exist.” Here’s the catch. The statements

    1a) “Bob does not believe that God exists”, and
    1b) “Bob believes that God doesn’t exist”,

    are not equivalent if Bob hasn’t formed a belief about God. That could happen if Bob has not heard of God, in which case he lacks knowledge about God and is, well, agnostic. It could also happen if Bob thinks there is insufficient knowledge about God to form a belief, in which case, he’s also agnostic. Outside of such cases, 1a and 1b are practically equivalent.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    J.J.,

    I disagree with that reasoning. The statements “Bob does not believe that God exists” and “Bob believes that God does not exist” are NEVER equivalent. They both represent different answers to different questions. Certainly, it is true that if Bob believes that God does not exist, then he can’t also believe that God does exist…however, if Bob does not believe that God exists, that doesn’t imply or necessitate that he believes that God does not exist.

    “Bob does not believe that God exists” means that Bob does not find personally compelling reason to assent to the claim “God exists.” Lacking personally compelling reason to assent to the claim of existence does not mean that Bob necessarily finds personally compelling reason to assent to the claim “God does not exist,” so the former does not necessarily lead to or imply the latter.

    If one has personally compelling reason to assent to the claim “God does not exist,” that is an altogether different matter.

    However, what makes someone an atheist is not assenting to the claim “God does not exist.” It is in not assenting (e.g., not believing) the claim “God exists.”

    You can talk about practical equivalence in the sense that someone who does not believe in god and someone who believes there is no god will *live* and *act* in many of the same ways…but that does not in any way equate the statements “Bob does not believe that God exists” and “Bob believes that God does not exist.”

    Agnosticism is not “Bob thinking there is insufficient knowledge about God to form a belief,” because as you have earlier, and quite aptly, stated, you can be an agnostic theist. You can say, “I don’t know whether God exists or not, but I believe he does.” Rather, agnosticism is only Bob thinking there is insufficient knowledge about God. You can make a judgment call on people who hold beliefs without knowledge (even though this shouldn’t be surprising..), but that doesn’t change the nature of agnosticism.

    …Ultimately, what I’m finding is that you have to insist that atheists “really” mean they believe that God does not exist in order to preserve your position. The problem is that just isn’t so. Certainly, some atheists (“strong” or “positive” atheists) do such a thing. Nevertheless, what most people here have been trying to say is that atheism doesn’t necessarily require such a belief. Atheism, purely and simply, is the lack of belief that God exists.

    Secondly, what most people would point out is that at first, you have talked about “not forming a belief.” You act like this puts you out of the atheist/theist categories and means you cannot properly answer the question “do you believe in god?” What people here have been pointing out is that it doesn’t. If you do not form a belief, then you do not believe. That means you can, and should easily be able to answer the question “Do you believe in God?” with a simple “no.”

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    “Do you believe in a god or gods?” Well, do ya, punk?

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    That was sarcasm, BTW.

  • Frink

    This may not apply to others. Most self-proclaimed agnostics I’ve met hide behind the “agnostic” label because it’s trendy. They embarrassed to admit they believe in God, but don’t want to reject spirituality and deities altogether, because that will send them to the burny place they’re too embarrassed to admit they still believe in.

    Again, that may not apply to you. If it doesn’t, ignore it. In my experience, the vast majority of “agnostics” fit this description.

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    I’m glad this is posted under humor. The thing is that these quips about agnostics being wimps and having no balls and such are just that: jokes. It would be a mistake to take the satirization of the agnostic’s position as the position itself. Any philosophical stance can be satirized, even atheism. You know who else was an atheist?! Hitler! Well then, Stalin!! You socialists!!

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Andrew S.: “Agnosticism is not ‘Bob thinking there is insufficient knowledge about God to form a belief,’ because as you have earlier, and quite aptly, stated, you can be an agnostic theist.”

    First off, John Wilkins, who is an agnostic and should know what he means by the label he gives himself, does claim that there is insufficient knowledge about God to say one way or the other whether God exists. (Actually, he’s probably a good example of what is tongue-in-cheekily called a “militant agnostic,” someone who doesn’t know and insists that you don’t either.) Second, yes, you can have agnostic theists–but only by resorting to a pathological belief formation that an agnostic like Wilkins goes out of his way to avoid.

    Andrew S.: “Ultimately, what I’m finding is that you have to insist that atheists ‘really’ mean they believe that God does not exist in order to preserve your position.”

    About the only time I see atheists insist that they don’t endorse the statement, “I believe there is no God,” is in arguments like the one we’re having. Otherwise, they seem to be happy enough to endorse bus signs like “There probably is no god…”.

    Andrew S.: “You act like this puts you out of the atheist/theist categories”

    No, I’m quite willing to call myself an atheist as an approximate label, but I respect those who are more persnickety about their labels and what they imply. And I’ve seen enough agnostics with balls to treat the whole “agnostics are wishy-washy” meme with contempt.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    John Wilkins, who is an agnostic and should know what he means by the label he gives himself, does claim that there is insufficient knowledge about God to say one way or the other whether God exists.

    Right. I understand that. Nevertheless, I’m just pointing out that such a label only is a claim that there insufficient knowledge about God to say one way or the other whether God exists…it doesn’t preclude someone saying one way or the other. And it certainly doesn’t preclude them from simply not believing one way or the other.

    About the only time I see atheists insist that they don’t endorse the statement, “I believe there is no God,” is in arguments like the one we’re having. Otherwise, they seem to be happy enough to endorse bus signs like “There probably is no god…”.

    No, I think the real issue you’re having is that you want to preserve this idea of atheism as a monolithic group. But it’s not. Obviously, the atheists who are endorsing bus signs like “There probably is no god” are of a different group (just a vocal minority, I would argue) from the majority who would simply say they do not believe in god.

    Since people seem to call one group “militant,” I think we can stretch that analogy. Just because some “militant Muslims” stress death to the infidel and unbeliever, this doesn’t mean that 1) Islam is all about that, 2) that most Muslims believe that, or 3) that just because these extremist minorities are vocal, militant, and active, that we should assume they speak for all or most of the group.

  • http://dreamersoften.blogspot.com rcrantz

    I am an agnostic because I think that epistemological certainty about anything is irresponsible and:
    -identifying as ‘atheist’ is like identifying as ‘asshole,’ as posts like this tend to indicate.
    -going by something like ‘realist’ implies that I think I’m better than everyone else, and that anyone who disagrees with me is unrealistic.
    -the label ‘skeptic’ has been misappropriated by people who are pretty certain about just about everything, which means it no longer accurately describes me.
    -the label ‘humanist’ shouldn’t involve the existence of God at all, and is instead about caring about people–there are Christian humanists.

    It would only be cowardice if I labeled myself an atheist because some jackass with the gall to call himself a “friendly” atheist doesn’t have the ability to understand what other people believe and instead dismisses their beliefs as cowardice told me to stop calling myself an agnostic. Agnosticism is a belief system that values one’s intellectual integrity by not pretending to know something it can’t.

    If I’m afraid of being judged, it’s by other people who are agnostic–I know I judge self-identified atheists as being among the worst offenders in the department of ‘I think that I’m capable of knowledge,’ and they don’t even do the courtesy of admitting they only claim to know something because they believe really hard.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    Good thing atheism (and for that matter, theism) has nothing to do with knowledge.

  • AxeGrrl

    rcrantz wrote:

    Agnosticism is a belief system that values one’s intellectual integrity by not pretending to know something it can’t.

    The problem with what you wrote above is that it can apply just as well to atheism. It, too, isn’t about ‘pretending to know something it can’t’……..it’s not about ‘knowing’ at all! It merely refers to the fact that one ‘doesn’t buy’ the ‘conclusion’ theists have come to.

  • Mr Z

    It merely refers to the fact that one ‘doesn’t buy’ the ‘conclusion’ theists have come to.

    As far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter how many times an atheist states this, or in how many ways. It’s just too difficult a concept for people to understand that anyone would reject the various notions of god and supernatural deities altogether due to lack of any credible supporting evidence.

    I don’t mean rejecting the notion of this god or that god, but all of them in the encapsulation of the actual concept of gods and supernatural beings. The agnostics who are not sure or can’t make up their minds give credence to the thought that gods and supernatural beings are possible. For them it seems there is too much social pressure and indoctrination to reject the concept of supernatural beings with a claim of divinity. They can reject superman and FSM and invisible pink unicorns but the god thing still lingers as somehow possible. I don’t get it myself.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I consider myself both an atheist and an agnostic. I also feel no ill will or frustration towards anybody who strongly considers themselves just one or the other. There seems to be a lot a variation on the definition of the terms. I’m personally partial to the association of atheism/theism to be about belief (which can change) and agnosticism/Gnosticism to be about what is knowable.

    I know of one person who considers himself to be an agnostic theist (and Christian). In that person’s case I have difficulty in understanding how he can be Christian (believing in heaven, hell, and a certain requirement for salvation) and call himself an agnostic. It would seem to me that an agnostic who believed in God would have to conclude that a moral and just God would not send people to hell for not believing a certain “laundry list” of unknowable things. I suspect that in this person’s case, he is trying to prove that he is an even better Christian because he believes even without evidence. For him, the act of believing is what impresses God. He has concluded that belief from an agnostic would be a better demonstration of faith.

    I prefer the skeptic’s approach, though. Reserve belief until there is better evidence.

  • http://dikkiisdiatribe.blogspot.com dikkii

    Third time I’ve attempted to comment on this post, never mind.

    I’ll point out that I’m an agnostic. I identify with this in preference to the term “atheist” for reasons I’ll go into shortly.

    I haven’t read all the comments, so it’s possible that someone else has beaten me to it but Hemant, it occurred to me that you have completely disregarded the likelihood that agnostics know the difference between an extraordinary claim and the null hypothesis. Richard Dawkins also does this in ‘The God Delusion’ so you’re in good company, but this doesn’t really make it any less excusable.

    (As an aside, I would strongly advise against invoking Russell’s Teapot when discussing this with an agnostic. Most of them are skilled up on dealing with what is a monstrous straw man)

    I blogged about this once, here.

    In any event, I identify as ‘agnostic’ for a variety of reasons. It’s accurate, being the main one. And, given that I know the difference between the extraordinary claim and the null hypothesis, why can’t I be agnostic about Thor, His Noodliness and, for that matter, Santa Claus if I want? I can do this, and with a straight face, too.

    But one of the main reasons that I don’t identify as atheist is that the currently accepted definition is altogether too inclusive – technically, you’re an atheist if you fall into any of the following categories, not just ordinary or capital-A atheists: non-theists, antitheists, apatheists or agnostics.

    I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, however I do have a problem identifying with babies, the undecided, Confucianists, most Buddhists and even some animists.

    As agnostic is a little more specific, I’m sure that you understand why I choose not to use the term “atheist”.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Andrew S.:

    No, I think the real issue you’re having is that you want to preserve this idea of atheism as a monolithic group. But it’s not. Obviously, the atheists who are endorsing bus signs like “There probably is no god” are of a different group (just a vocal minority, I would argue) from the majority who would simply say they do not believe in god.

    From what I’ve seen, those bus signs have gotten widespread support from atheists. Our host, who isn’t a stereotypical “militant” atheist, likes them. Heck, I like them, and I’m far more likely to grumble about the likes of Dawkins than our host is. No, I don’t think atheists are monolithic, nor do I think that saying “There is no God,” is “militant.” Historically, the definition of an atheist is someone who believes there is no God, and if you look at Dawkins’ seven-point scale in The God Delusion, you see that definition still in play, especially in points 6 and 7 on the scale, which are “There probably is no God” and “There flat out is no God,” respectively.

  • http://dreamersoften.blogspot.com rcrantz

    “Good thing atheism (and for that matter, theism) has nothing to do with knowledge.”

    Right, it’s about claiming to have knowledge. The actual knowledge isn’t there.

    “The problem with what you wrote above is that it can apply just as well to atheism. It, too, isn’t about ‘pretending to know something it can’t’……..it’s not about ‘knowing’ at all! It merely refers to the fact that one ‘doesn’t buy’ the ‘conclusion’ theists have come to.”

    Just like agnostics also don’t buy the conclusion that atheists have come to. Is that really so hard to understand? Agnostics do not agree with you. They feel that you are jumping to conclusions, that for all your lip service to atheism being a lack of belief, you are being just as sloppy and irresponsible with regard to knowledge as the theists. The biggest difference is the theists are pretty upfront about the fact that they have no reason to claim to know what they know.

    “For them it seems there is too much social pressure and indoctrination to reject the concept of supernatural beings with a claim of divinity.”

    My favorite part about this is how little you (or the original post) understand about agnosticism. It’s nearly identical to reading Christians write about why atheists are atheists–good for a laugh, largely bereft of anything remotely resembling facts.

    It has nothing to do with social pressure or indoctrination. I don’t have any religious friends that I’m aware of, actually–they’re all nontheistic to some degree or another, and most of them are a lot more hostile to religion than I am. I really have no religious inclinations (though my willingness to entertain the notion that someone who disagrees with me might not be the single dumbest human in the existence of the universe goes a long way to allowing me to have intelligent, productive discussions with religious people).

    “They can reject superman and FSM and invisible pink unicorns but the god thing still lingers as somehow possible.”

    I’ve always been baffled by atheists who actually think that helping people fill out their Atheist Bingo Card by invoking the FSM and invisible pink unicorns and Russel’s Teapot is actually a valid, compelling, sound argument. As far as arguments go it’s less compelling than the ontological argument for the existence of God–at least that has a structure that’s based on clever wordplay instead of just a false analogy.

    God–defined loosely as the first cause or uncaused cause, the unseen watchmaker, the greatest possible being, the lawgiver–is an entity for which billions of people throughout time have had cause to believe in, and, if he has the traits ascribed to him, is actually necessary for the existence of the universe–a fundamentally different category of being, something which creates the laws by which the universe functions, etc etc. There is ample reason to believe in something resembling a God. Atheists happen to reject all of this on various grounds–some valid, some not so much–but it’s there.

    In contrast, your Atheist Bingo Card monsters have never provided any reason for anyone to actually believe in. No sane person actively maintains a belief in these entities, and there is no actual argument that suggests that such a class of being might exist.

    An honest question for you: do you ever believe in any of the hypothetical entities proposed by science to explain certain things? The Oort cloud, the Higgs Boson, etc? Do you assume that they don’t exist until they have been proven to exist? Or do you withhold judgment until experiments have been conducted or observations made and the data is more clear?

  • http://www.logosfera.ro/ Logosfera

    When you ask a person if they believe in god and they say they are agnostic you should ask back: “I didn’t ask what you know, what you think you know or can know but what you believe”.
    Paraphrasing Stephen Colbert I think agnostics could be, besides atheists without balls, believers with decency, or common sense.

  • Mr Z

    @rcrantz
    “It has nothing to do with social pressure or indoctrination. I don’t have any religious friends that I’m aware of, actually–they’re all nontheistic to some degree or another, and most of them are a lot more hostile to religion than I am. I really have no religious inclinations (though my willingness to entertain the notion that someone who disagrees with me might not be the single dumbest human in the existence of the universe goes a long way to allowing me to have intelligent, productive discussions with religious people).”

    The indoctrination of society on the whole affects you more than you think and does not require that you, as an individual, be indoctrinated. While you may not have any religious inclinations, you understand the concepts and varying shades of God. In much of the western world, it would be hard to reach adulthood without having beein introduced to at least one concept of God. This societal indoctrination here in the USA leads to people believing they live in a Christian nation. Part of that indoctrination of society got a major boost this past week from the Texas State Board of Education – you can find many links about it. If left unchecked this will indoctrinate children to creationist thinking without having to indoctrinate them in a church with religious settings. I am ‘militantly’ opposed to such indoctrination techniques in the way militant atheists are thought of.

    The FSM and invisible pink unicorns and Russel’s Teapot et al are simply examples of constructs which are no more fantastical than the God of the Christian Bible. That they can be dismissed demonstrates how the God of the Christian bible can and arguably should be dismissed.

    “God–defined loosely as the first cause or uncaused cause, the unseen watchmaker, the greatest possible being, the lawgiver–is an entity for which billions of people throughout time have had cause to believe in, and, if he has the traits ascribed to him, is actually necessary for the existence of the universe–a fundamentally different category of being, something which creates the laws by which the universe functions, etc etc.”

    That, in a nutshell is Intelligent Design – which in turn is creationism disguised to look like science. If you believe that you arrived at this conclusion without the help of religions, I’d be interested to hear about it. If you simply heard the idea and found it compelling personnally, that’s a different matter altogether. In either case, it’s still ID. I have serious doubts that stone age man came up with such a thought and developed religion from it. It is far more likely to have been more Earth-centric thinking that came up with religion. To retreat from religious dogma to the ID thinking is to reject religion, but not the idea of God. Where did the idea of God come from? Deism as a popular notion is comparatively a recent idea.

    “An honest question for you: do you ever believe in any of the hypothetical entities proposed by science to explain certain things? The Oort cloud, the Higgs Boson, etc? Do you assume that they don’t exist until they have been proven to exist? Or do you withhold judgment until experiments have been conducted or observations made and the data is more clear?”

    Those hypothetical entities of science are ideas. They should be discussed while all speed is made to test them. Some things, like the Higgs Boson, are difficult to run out and test in your garage. This leaves time to discuss while test facilities are developed. Being a science fiction fan, I personally enjoy reading about ideas proposed by science, whether proven or not yet. In doing so you get to learn all the reasoning that someone used to suggest this as yet unproven thing. The news folk will talk about a ‘god particle’ and black holes in Europe etc. but you have to study a bit to understand why this was proposed in the first place.

    Now, that said, this is particularly different than the proposition from ID. Most science is based on the work of previous scientists. That is to say that breakthroughs explain problems that had not yet been explained, or some natural phenomenon which is observable by anyone with the right equipment. Scientists generally share their work, offer it up for ridicule and other scientists to repeat their work to test the conclusion. ID, not so much. The ort cloud has been verified. The Higgs Boson is being worked on. We’ve never found a rock that says “Made by God” on the bottom of it. Now, if you simply want to apply the label ‘god’ to the initial cause of the universe then I personally will say that perhaps your thinking is not big enough, for this reason: if you can be okay with black holes and stars not being formed individually by some supernatural being, why can’t the universe as we know it have been formed the same godless way? Who said that the universe as we know it today is all there is? What we know of the universe is incomplete. All the great thinking done by mankind does not yet eplain what happens inside a black hole. The 11 dimension universe model seems to be making some headway, but we still have a way to go. Mankind does not know where the edges of the universe are, and theoretical math implies that there might be edges. There are still many possibilities – but these are based on knowledge, math, observation, and theoretical thinking about how such applies to the wider universe. Evolution took its lumps in the beginning, but now there is only a very small chance that your life will be lived without using something which is designed or based on engineering that came from evolutionary theory. Science is not religion, it’s the process of understanding the world and using that understanding to make tools and use them to understand more of the world. Conclusions can be wrong, but the process of science allows for corrections. Conclusions and theories from science could be proven wrong, but until then it’s the best guess we have. This is opposed to religion which has an answer for everything that is not yet understood, which is not an answer: god did it, at least till science shows it to be a natural ocurrance. That applies to everything that I’ve ever heard of so far.

    I’ve got my own personal ideas of how religion came to be, and none of them are as kind to the idea of a God as you would be. It’s been said that abscense of evidence is not evidence of abscense but I find this faulty. When the concept of God was first proposed evidence was not used to judge validity. You either believed or die, or you believed in a different god. In the end, the god with the best soldiers wins, not the best evidence. Believe as we do or die is not evidence, yet it propogates and grows religious belief over time where science relies only on evidence. Perhaps mankind will never know all there is to know but this still does not imply there is a god. What we know now would make us appear as gods to stone age man. God was first proposed by men who cut their meat with stone tools, died of the common cold, and all manner of things which would be unthinkable to us today. Religion, Science, and Law have only recently become separate endeavors. We are still today learning about lightning, but it is no longer the tool of angry gods. We do not know how to predict earthquakes yet, but they are no longer the tools of angry gods to us, with the exception of some idiots still living today. There is a long list like this. The very idea of gods has no evidence, science has removed any that was offered as credible.

    Where some will argue that because we don’t know all there is to know about the universe it is possible that there is a ‘god’ that is the first cause, the uncaused cause. This argument is weak in view of the (perhaps strawman argument) people who proposed such a cause. It is a presumption made in the abscense of knowledge. When science comes up with a testable idea on how the big bang happened, what then of god? Is the first cause then moved back further? Personally, if you want to believe that there is some initial cause for existence which has created the big bang then went away – this is not corrosive to society. If you want to build a religion around this and tell people how to live their lives based on this god – that is corrosive to society. Non-corrosive belief is no harm to anyone, and at this point in our knowledge is arguably as valid as any scientific thought on the cause of the big bang. Science intends on changing it’s understanding of the big bang – the deist who says god did it does not intend on changing their views. It is unknown if the deist is right, but the intent of both is clearly at odds.

    P.S. I believe that I have not been critical of anyone here, save for the idiots who blame female attire for earthquakes. I lump into that group of idiots those who think hurricanes are punishment also.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Logosfera:

    When you ask a person if they believe in god and they say they are agnostic you should ask back: “I didn’t ask what you know, what you think you know or can know but what you believe”.

    And the obvious response to that is that if one’s beliefs aren’t based on what one thinks one knows or can know, then one has a serious problem.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    J. J.: I absolutely agree, and it’s the reason why my parents’ religious beliefs baffle me. They admit that they can’t possibly know that their beliefs are true. They’re not even willing to say that they’re right and other (even contradictory) beliefs are wrong.

    They flat-out assert that nobody can possibly know whether or not God exists, but they still choose to believe he/it/she does. They say it’s all about faith, and when I point out that there are people with much stronger faith than theirs that say they’ll be spending eternity in hell, they say that that idea isn’t coming from anything divine. When I ask how they could possibly know that, and point out that a fundamentalist Christian would say that their ideas certainly aren’t coming from anything divine, they essentially respond with “well, that’s right, they do, but we can’t know one way or the other.”

    They have absolutely no rational basis for their beliefs at all, and they’re perfectly fine with that. They’re not even willing to argue in defense of what they believe. Essentially, they jump from “we can’t know anything for sure” to “I’ll just believe in the religion I was raised with” without going too deeply into wondering why they picked that one. Apparently they don’t consider this problematic.

    I’m more concerned with whether or not my beliefs are true, but they seem more concerned with whether or not their beliefs are comfortable.

    Of course, then my mom will go on and quote from the Bible, to which I’ll reply with another Biblical quote that completely contradicts what she said… only to have her say that, yes, in fact, you can support pretty much anything with the Bible (with no sense of irony at all).

  • AxeGrrl

    I wrote:

    “The problem with what you wrote above is that it can apply just as well to atheism. It, too, isn’t about ‘pretending to know something it can’t’……..it’s not about ‘knowing’ at all! It merely refers to the fact that one ‘doesn’t buy’ the ‘conclusion’ theists have come to.”

    rcrantz replied:

    Just like agnostics also don’t buy the conclusion that atheists have come to. Is that really so hard to understand? Agnostics do not agree with you. They feel that you are jumping to conclusions, that for all your lip service to atheism being a lack of belief, you are being just as sloppy and irresponsible with regard to knowledge as the theists. The biggest difference is the theists are pretty upfront about the fact that they have no reason to claim to know what they know.

    rcrantz, did you actually read my comment? the whole point I was making is that atheist don’t claim knowledge! Did you miss that essential point?

  • me

    “no one says they’re agnostic about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. No one says they’re agnostic about Zeus or Thor.”

    As an agnostic, it’s pretty unsettling to read this from an atheist blogger, and it accepts the fallacy that one cannot be both atheist and agnostic.

    An atheist is somebody who doesn’t believe in God. One could also be a greek god atheist as to Zeus, or a silly funny god atheist as to the FSM. An essential element of atheism is “belief.” An atheist does not accept the irrational, unverifiable belief that God, etc. exist. I am an atheist, because I do not choose to believe in God, that is, I do not choose to have faith.

    An agnostic is somebody who says that he does not know whether or not God, etc. exist. Whereas atheism is grounded in belief (or the lack of belief), agnosticism is grounded in the existence, or lack of existence, of evidence. I am agnostic because I do not “know” whether God, etc. exists. Indeed, inherent in the concept of the judeo-christian God is, in my opinion, unverifiable either affirmatively or negatively, and, therefore not something we can ever “know.”

    In short: I’m an atheist because I do not “believe” and I’m an agnostic because I do not “know.”

  • Mr Z

    @me

    “An agnostic is somebody who says that he does not know whether or not God, etc. exist. Whereas atheism is grounded in belief (or the lack of belief), agnosticism is grounded in the existence, or lack of existence, of evidence. I am agnostic because I do not “know” whether God, etc. exists. Indeed, inherent in the concept of the judeo-christian God is, in my opinion, unverifiable either affirmatively or negatively, and, therefore not something we can ever “know.” “

    Do you think that when someone thinks about whether or not a god exists that they are giving credence to the idea itself?

    Do you think that there should be any serious credence given to an idea whose true nature is to be unknowable? That is, to accept an idea as worthy of continued and vigorous thought when at it’s inception it is something that can not be known.

  • SickoftheUS

    Rachul wrote:
    Atheists have a belief, albeit very strongly supported by a lack of evidence to the contrary, but a belief nonetheless that there is no god, no soul. This faith in no god can be as strong as any religious zealot’s belief in the divine (who sees “evidence” of divine works all around him). From an agnostic perspective, it is the atheist that has the weaker stance, because when it comes right down to it, atheism is a faith (in the nonexistence of god) whereas agnosticism is a lack of a belief system altogether.

    Umm, no. Atheism is simply a rationally, empirically arrived-at scientific belief about the world, like so many others people can rationally have. Atheism is the belief that there is no evidence at all that a god exists, and, especially combined with all the known psychological evidence for humans to be swayed towards a faulty belief in the divine, it thus makes sense to say that god doesn’t exist.

    *Of course* if testable repeatable verifiable etc. etc. evidence concerning a god came to light, there would be room to (very skeptically) analyze that evidence. But the fact that that (exceedingly remote) eventuality could theoretically arise doesn’t carve out a new realm and validity for a special religious “agnosticism”; it’s just normal, rational, scientific thinking allowing for the fact that some future evidence could upend established belief.

    You surely don’t have a problem saying that the Earth is round and is not flat. Yet, there is an exceedingly slight chance that there *could* be future evidence that all of our measurements about the Earth have been wrong – perhaps local space and light have been warped in some strange gravitational field and the apparent roundness of the planet is an artifact of this, and in fact the Earth is really a very distended ellipse. Oh my god, you’ve had unfounded “faith” in the roundness (or non-flatness, it doesn’t matter expect rhetorically) of the Earth all this time!

    But no, you haven’t, and your attempt to cast atheism as a kind of “faith” is misguided in the same way. It’s the carving-out of the special language and categories, and all the special consideration and accommodation, when it comes to disbelieving in a god, that smacks of exceptionalism on this issue, and points to the likelihood that language is being twisted to serve still-extant psychological needs here.

  • Scootah

    Assuming that you don’t believe in any of the yawehistic sub-cult doctrines that revolve around an invisible elderly white guy with a beard who watches while you poop and possibly has some kind of multiple personality disorder thing going on that’s not necessarily atheism…

    Web definitions for atheism
    the doctrine or belief that there is no God
    wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

    Web definitions for agnostic
    a person who claims that they cannot have true knowledge about the existence of God (but does not deny that God might exist)

    wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

    This is a simple cast of pedanticism.

    If we cast the world into deists (those who believe in a divine being of some nature) and non-deists (everyone else) – and then describe non-deists as Atheists – is gramatically incorrect – but it’s pretty close to common usage of the terms.

    Now I don’t believe in Smurfs… But that doesn’t make me asmurfy – that just means that I don’t think that they’re real. Logically, it’s impossible to prove a negative. So I can’t prove that something doesn’t exist. So I’m smurfgnostic. I’m also bigfootgnostic – Maybe those big hairy buggers are out there… But I have no compelling evidence to make that a plausible suspiscion worth investing significant time into investigating.

    I don’t believe in a divine creator being. But I can’t prove that one doesn’t exist – so according to the dictionary, because I’ve got an adequate understanding of how logical proofs do (and don’t) work – I’m Agnostic. I accept that I can’t disprove the existence of god – But a lifetime of exposure to his fanclub has convinced me that it’s not worth investing any more time into trying to prove his existence either.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Scootah: “Logically, it’s impossible to prove a negative.”

    Not true. I can easily prove a negative such as “There is a ball in my shoebox,” by just opening up the box and looking. Now, practically speaking, particular negative statements can be really hard or even impossible to prove, depending on the circumstances, but that’s not an issue of logic.

  • me

    “Do you think that there should be any serious credence given to an idea whose true nature is to be unknowable? That is, to accept an idea as worthy of continued and vigorous thought when at it’s inception it is something that can not be known.”

    –No, I do not think that religious views are worthy of continued and vigorous thought. It does not follow from the mere fact that we have not verified something (affirmatively or negatively) that we should necessarily investigate it. That is not limited to the unknowable. For example, there is a glass of water in front of me. I do not know precisely how much water is in the glass. The answer to that question is easily knowable, but also unworthy of investigation.

    My previous post does not address the question of whether religion is worthy of vigorous thought or investigation. There is nothing inherent in agnosticism that demands investigation of every question. It merely says that, if we do not, or cannot, investigate something, we cannot know whether or not is true. You can still BELIEVE something isn’t true, which, in the context of religion, makes you an atheist.

  • Kasey

    I call myself an agnostic simply because I believe that whether a god exists or not is irrelevant to me and my beliefs. I am not afraid of the afterlife or lack thereof. I’d rather live in the here and the now.

  • Deepak Shetty

    No one says they’re agnostic about Zeus or Thor. So why are they agnostic about “God”?

    Some agnostics(like me) are not agnostic about theistic Gods like the Judeo-Christian/Islamic or Hindu God’s. We are agnostic about specific forms of what is defined as God. We also don’t feel the need to tell someone that their definitions of God is not a mainstream one
    e.g. telling Einstein that his God defined as the sum total of the laws of nature is a wishy washy one.

    And finally the tea pot argument is an analogy only if we once had a mysterious tea shower after which someone came up with a celestial tea pot hypothesis. And no Im not a fan of the God of the Gaps argument :).

    Its also surprising that someone like you who claims he has no problem with the benign forms of religion cringes when he hears the term agnostic.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Friendly Atheist:

    No one says they’re agnostic about Zeus or Thor. So why are they agnostic about “God”?

    The fact that you even made this statement at all shows how ignorant you were when you went off about agnostics being “wishy-washy.” Did you not try to educate yourself on what agnostics believe? And if so, how did you completely miss what Bertrand Russell had to say about agnosticism, especially the part that Dale McGowan quoted above, where Russell had said, “in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic.” Of course, Russell died quite a while ago, but considering his influence even to the present day, there is no good reason to assume that the view that he espoused died with him.

    I’m sorry if I sound harsh to someone who tries to be friendly, but what you did was not that different from a religious person making judgments about atheists without doing the research.

  • http://dikkiisdiatribe.blogspot.com dikkii

    I’m a little surprised that Russell’s Teapot keeps coming up in some of the comments that are made. As I noted in my previous comment, an agnostic generally knows which part is the extraordinary claim and it occurs to me to be a bit insulting that atheists automatically assume that agnostics give equal time to the null hypothesis.

    Even if an agnostic did give equal time, or even greater probability to a deity(ies) (rare verging on doubtful), they’d still know that the onus of proof exists on the party making the claim that a deity(ies) exist(s).

    Russell’s Teapot is a straw man – no agnostic would attempt disproving a teapot until a claimant had provided evidence of the existence of the teapot first.

    (I usually propose that any atheist sanctimonous enough to try Russell’s Teapot on an agnostic is a proxy for the claimant, and should therefore be providing this particular evidence)

  • http://www.quietatheist.com Slugsie

    I’m of the Theism/Atheist is a statement of belief, and Gnostic/Agnostic is a statement of knowledge. I know that in general parlance agnostic sits in the middle and as such yes, it’s a wishy washy position that just seems to be there to appease the masses.

  • JohnCW

    I left religion this past easter – when I realized I didn’t believe any of it. I have no problem saying I an am atheist in regards to any particular version of god[s] b/c I don’t believe in any of them. However, on the larger question of god[s] existence, I am content to be an agnostic – for now. It is not clear to me that no god[s] exists, but it is clear that no religion is true.

    If this is simply a stepping stone to full atheism, so be it. No need to rush me!

  • R9

    few days late so probably no-one’s reading anymore

    I go with agnostic because there might be some sort of prime mover, I dunno, I don’t factor it into my life as it looks like something currently beyond useful investigation.

    Russel’s teapot is fine against specific personal gods that spoke to bronze age tribes and said don’t be gay or eat shellfish but doesn’t really help me with such remote questions.

    I have to admit I have difficulties with the word Atheist due to the amount of cock-waving going on in that movement.

  • Mr Z

    @R9
    I used to feel that agnosticism is a solid place to hold. Then the Internet made astrophysics a bit more accessible to the public. Studying that I realized that what we know of the universe is not as solid as what most people understand from their schooling. It’s a wild and violent place whose dimensions we are still guessing at.

    It occurred to me that if I was happy with a prime mover pressing the start button and walking away, it was because I thought I understood what we thought we knew of the universe. I’ve come to think that if I’m okay with a start button I have not accepted all the possibilities that still remain for the universe. It may well be much more to existence than what we know of the universe. This little section of it may just be a bubble in a much larger existence. That prime mover may have had no more to do with pressing the start button than a bystander does with crushing a paper cup as they scramble to hide from the participants in a drive by shooting.

    Yes, the possibilities are far greater than what we have contemplated generally, and I feel that limiting my thoughts to stopping at the big bang and limiting it to what we can see thus far of the universe is a disservice to myself, and if there were a prime mover it would be a dishonor to what was given to me between my ears.

    I decided that I don’t know where the start button is, none of us do. Realizing this puts that prime mover so far away that consideration of such becomes ridiculous. This thought taken together with the body of other thought and evidence tells me personally that common agnosticism is naive, and assuming of what the universe is and what it’s limitations are. Many here have said that agnosticism is about what is known or knowable and not belief, but for me it is when I considered what I know and what is knowable that made atheism the more logical thought.

    As for cock-waving, there are atheists who would be fine keeping that to themselves, but when they view the world around them and see how religion is inextricably interwoven into so very much of the evil in the world it makes them very angry. I don’t blame them. Perhaps ridding the world of religion will not rid it of evil, but it will remove implacable faith based justifications for it. At that point it just becomes regular evil, crimes against humanity, violations of international human rights, rape, cruelty, petty prejudices and oppression and the like. Criminals get punished – religions, not so much.

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    I wonder if they have this kind of debate in the Gay community: bisexuals just don’t have the balls to be completely gay.

  • BiscuitWhisker

    I don’t know if this link has been posted yet (a search came up dry) but this did a good job of describing the possible positions on the subject. Cleared up the confusion caused by thinking that agnostics fell between atheists and theists.

    http://freethinker.co.uk/2009/09/25/8419/

  • http://www.banalleakage.com martymankins

    Personally, I still refer to myself as Agnostic. I’ve always deemed the term atheist as someone who’s pretty sure there is no god and they take a religious-type of approach to it. They are proselytizing their non-belief as such. While even the most vocal and prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are pretty firm in their atheist camp, they still leave tout that there’s no solid proof that no god exists, which pretty much has always been my feeling that it’s agnostic. Agnostic to me has always meant that I don’t care if there is a god or not. I don’t follow nor belong to any organized religion that believes in a god. I live my life based on the idea that it doesn’t matter if a god exists. When I do something good, it’s because of myself or other humans that happened, not some mythical creature that people give credit to.

    I do call myself atheist to those that I’ve not had a long association with, but for family, friends and others that have known me for some time, referring to myself as agnostic doesn’t seem to invoke the social and sterotyped distaste for the word and term atheist. This avoids a lot of arguments that I don’t want to get into. Call it coward if you will, but I would much rather remain neutral in my relationships with some than cause a divide just to prove some point that I can’t physically prove or debate.

  • Deepak Shetty

    @Slugsie

    it’s a wishy washy position that just seems to be there to appease the masses.

    Really? you know so much about why agnostics are agnostics that you feel qualified enough to draw that conclusion?

    Looking though some of the comments here , I’m beginning to think there is something to this *new atheist* label after all.

  • Jenifer

    I am a self proclaimed agnostic, and it has nothing at all to do with not having made up my mind or appeasing the masses.

    In my opinion, it’s the most honest answer to the question (other than ignostic -> but that’s just a way of delaying the answer).

    What agnostic doesn’t mean to me:
    “I’m not sure if there’s a god or not.”

    What it does mean:
    “There’s no way of knowing whether there’s a god or not, so I will focus my attention on what can be known.”

    The end result may be the same as if I called myself an atheist, but I think it’s a more precise way of getting there.

  • Willa

    Dear Friendly Atheist,

    I generally like your articles and find myself concurring on a number of points, but I will remember this one in particular and on the occasional, irregular times where I do come back, if I ever see you complaining about how an “XYZ” has a better standing in America than an atheist – an XYZ being anything that is low on the social pecking order, I will remind you of how you view agnostics – specifically in this article.

    Just as an aside, how you ever heard of Dale Carnegie and his wonderful book “How to win friends and influence people”? It’s a bit dated, for sure, but the principles are still sound. Here’s the link:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Win_Friends_and_Influence_People

    The exact opposite of course, is “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” – I suspect you can imagine how that is done.

    Naturally you’re allowed to have whatever opinion (or belief) you wish – it’s certainly your right to say that agnostics are wishy-washy, ball-less and spineless – but I would suggest that doing so would mean that the Friendly Atheist isn’t as “friendly” as he likes to think he is.

    Thanks

    Willa

  • p.s.

    I find the people who claim to know *without any doubt* that there is no god just as annoying as the theists who claim to know with the same assurance that there is a god. However, I do think that a claim that we were sneezed into existence by a purple banana is just as valid as anything described by religion, and I am very much a skeptic. Does that make me an atheist or agnostic?

  • Mr Z

    To p.s.
    If you feel as you describe, IMO, you are sane. But that is just an opinion. I say I’m atheist in such matters because my understanding of the universe leaves me with no belief in any god. The fact is that I reject the very idea of gods altogether – for lack of evidence or any reasonable probabilities. At times I think the likelihood that the universe as we know it was created by something is daft, and it’s more likely that this universe (as we know it) is more like a spot of water laying on the ground after being sprayed from a pothole by the tire of a passing car. At other times, it’s too much to think about, but I can’t imagine now that the entirety of existence of matter and energy is contained within the bounds of what we know as the universe today. I think that believing the big bang is the beginning of all matter and energy is as naive as believing the Earth is the center of the universe, or that this universe was created in all it’s vast, violent, dispassionate glory just for us monkeys/apes etc. The greater our knowledge, the more insignificant to existence that I think we really are.

    Despite all that thinking, I still find no reason to not reject the concept of gods and supernatural beings outright for lack of evidence and probability. It just doesn’t make any sense. That I can’t know for certain of an unknowable supernatural being’s existence is not a valid argument to accept that there might be without evidence or even probable cause to consider it. My thoughts about the true extent of matter and energy has some probable cause for thought, evidence of a kind, even. Despite my willingness to consider that which has previously been thought unimaginable, there is still no evidence of supernatural beings. I think you are falling into the atheist point of view. You’ve given some thought about the purple banana, and found all the evidence lacking. From some angles you probably seem agnostic, but I think you’re on the atheist end of the scale.

  • Willa

    Folks,

    Atheism is a statement about belief. Agnostism is a statement about knowledge.

    Atheism is not the belief itself, nor is agnostism knowledge itself.

    It’s not some vocabulary, syntactical divisioning like “good, better, best” – with “believer” on one end, “atheist” on the other, and “agnostic” in the middle.

    It’s not a scale.

  • Mr Z

    Willa,
    No manner of argument will convince the greater mass of humanity to not want to belong to a group. Labels are ways of identifying which group a person belongs to, despite the actual definition of the labels, they will be used to identify a group which a person does or does not feel comfortable belonging to. This is the reason for much of the discussion… feelings of belonging, and for some, the lack of need to belong to a ‘group’
    .. There is little to be done about that as I fear that even education will not prevent it.

  • http://www.saintcynic.blogspot.com Kane Augustus

    Mr. Friendly Atheist,

    My understanding of agnosticism is that it covers one part of the two-fold nature of worldviews: epistemological and metaphysical. Given the meaning of agnosticism (literally, ‘without knowledge’), we can safely say that agnosticism covers the epistemological aspect of worldviews. Atheism and Theism cover the metaphysical end of the spectrum.

    This is how a person can be an agnostic atheist (one who does not know if there is a god, but will not concede that there is or is not until the evidence is in), or an agnostic theist (one who believes there is a god, but that that god is beyond our current understanding or ability to detect).

    So, when a person describes themself as an ‘agnostic’, s/he is only admitting to the content of their knowledge. Their metaphysical position (atheist or theist) can only be ferretted out through further dialogue and correspondence.

    Hope that helps!

    Cheers!
    Kane

  • Hitch

    Kane I like how you structured this. Thomas Huxley would approve I’m sure.

    It also shows how agnosticism is understood differently (and falsely) by being placed on the methaphysical dimension.

    If someone says he is agnostic but rejects the atheist label they are actually saying, in your picture, that they reject the metaphysical question altogether, but accept the epistemological one.

    In that sense pure agnosticism is a stronger position than atheism because it does not even grant the metaphysical question validity by taking any position in it.

  • http://www.saintcynic.blogspot.com Kane Augustus

    Hitch,

    Thank you very much for your affirmation. You have summed up what I was attempting to explain, but have done so with much more clarity.

    I very much appreciate your insightfulness.

    Take care,
    Kane

  • Michael R. Holt

    Why do I choose to call myself an Agnostic?

    Basically, because it is my understanding that Agnostics believe there is a God, but think it is impossible to prove that he is the God of the Bible. I agree.

    I tend to take the easiest-to-believe (Occam’s Razor) solution. Evolution takes WAY more faith to believe than the Creation account, but I take issue with parts of the Bible as well. Truth be told, they’re BOTH unprovable FAITH, and in that aspect, they’re both unbelievable.

    So yeah, I think there’s a God out there. Do I think he’s bored enough to watch something that he made thousands (or even millions) of years ago and take an active interest? Now THAT strains credulity.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    Michael, I think that your understanding of “agnostic”, “Occam’s Razor” and “evolution” are in need of revision.

    Agnosticism is about knowledge but no claims of belief underlie agnosticism itself.

    Occam’s Razor is not about taking the easiest-to-believe solution but about not multiplying entities. if it rains you don’t explain rain in terms of spirits because they aren’t necessary. Instead you use naturalistic explanations because they are suitable for explaining the weather.

    Evolution requires absolutely zero faith because the evidence is what supports the theory. Creationism is entirely about faith and not about evidence.

    That said you certainly can be an agnostic theist (someone who believes in a god or gods but doesn’t believe that gods can be proven) just as someone can be an agnostic atheist. It is the gnostic opinion that confuses me because that is a claim to knowledge about gods. Now either gods are so poorly defined as to escape knowledge claims or are supposedly beyond mere human knowledge. Either works for the agnostic.

  • AZteach

    I think that when a person is asked to describe themselves, “agnostic” could be a way of saying, “I’m still thinking about it…”

  • Jonny5

    I am probably an weak agnostic-atheist, as I don’t believe in any religions or gods, but I don’t rule out the possibilities. I hate the connotation of being “weak” implies. What does it matter if I’m undecided on the issue? Are we going to get graded when we die on how adamant we were about our beliefs? Of course, that could lead into an endless argument over whether anything really matters then. I guess what I’m saying is the most important part of being an evolved human is having the ability to believe or not believe in anything you want, with however much zeal you see fit.

  • The Soap Box

    This post and all the comments really got me thinking about this. Here is my take on it.

  • anon1mat0

    Personally one of the things that bothers me most about believers is their dogma, that absolute belief in this absolute entity who is absolutely powerful, knowledgeable, and “benevolent”, that we must acknowledge or go to a place of absolute torment and absolute suffering.

    With that in mind the idea of an absolute opposite doesn’t really attract me even if I basically agree with the atheist idea that such an absolute being doesn’t exist.

    From that perspective it bothers me to no end the idea of “with us or against us” that seems to be implied by some hardcore atheists, ie: if I don’t say that I absolutely reject the notion of a deity then I have “no balls”, etc.

    Personally I could be classified as an atheist in the sense that I don’t believe in the existence of the judeo-xtian notion of absolute deity, but on the same token, I could be classified as an agnostic as I don’t rule out the existence of a very advanced, god-like being who may or not interfere with human affairs, in the light of universal time scales, and evolution (ie: how would we perceive an intelligent race with millions of years of advantage on us?).

    But in the end this is a problem of semantics, that in my opinion doesn’t deserve some of the vitriol I see in some posts. In many aspects atheists (hard, soft) and agnostics (hard, soft) and apatheists are in the same boat, so why call names and/or demand a fatwa on those who don’t follow any particular view?

  • Mr Z

    @Andrew – I remember you. The others are right, you do like to argue for no point other than to hear yourself. Stop that.

    To those that think labels and names make some kind of difference: I disagree vehemently. If you want to describe your particular position as not being the common understanding of a definition state that you disagree with the definition and that you would like it redefined. As an anti-theist, that is one who is opposed to the entire notion of gods, it looks silly to argue about what ‘kind’ of a deity you are willing to believe in. Why don’t you just say you want to be a deist.

    As for me, I’ll believe in the first deity that actually exists. So step on up and show us all your evidence for your deity. First three to show proof win a prize. Unless and until some one actually SHOWS proof of a deity, arguing about whether one exists is mental masturbation. Additionally, unless and until proof is shown all the believers of any deity that is without proof are a corrosive part of society. You can call me dogmatic or hard core or whatever the hell you want to call me as long as you remember that there is no proof of gods and the idea is fracking stupid. It drives people to do dangerous and stupid things.

    Now, when we just deal with known facts its SOOO much easier. Pontificate all you want, but if you want to argue remember that straying away from the facts is just another garden path your leading yourself down. The only people who will profit from basing their lives on ‘what if’ and ‘what might’ are bookies and liars. The point of thinking about whether there is a god or not is generally to answer the two big questions and find meaning in your life. The ‘what ifs’ and ‘what mights’ don’t do either.

    For you that don’t like absolutes, don’t worry, I offer none except that I’m absolutely certain that religion ruins everything it touches.

    The very idea of gods is stupid and dangerous and caustic to society and has no credible evidence to support it.

    There is no purpose to life. We exist, period. Get used to it.

    There is no great meaning to life. If you are reading this you are part of a branch of the most advanced apes on this planet. Count yourself fortunate and quit wasting your life worrying about ridiculous questions of meaning… just live.

    You know… don’t worry, be happy….

  • sophion

    I dont believe in the flying spaghetti monster.
    I dont believe in Zeus.
    I dont believe that Jesus is God.
    I believe its possible there is a god out there, a god that we dont know.  A god that no human has ever met or described.
    Sometimes i believe there really is a god out there. Sometimes I dont. So is there a god out there? I dont know. But i wish there is.