What’s the Deal with Agnosticism?

The video below, part of The Atheist Voice series discusses Agnosticism (without getting overly philosophical):

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the project — more videos will be posted soon — and we’d also appreciate your suggestions as to which questions we ought to tackle next!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Jasper

    I don’t personally care which definitions a person chooses to use. It’s like person A programming in language A, and person B programming language B, each saying the other’s code is invalid because it’s not written in the others’ languages.

    The key is to synchronize definitions when beginning a conversation.

    The moment the conversation becomes idiotic is when an agnostic barges into the room and declares that all atheists are “Arrogant” due to the agnostic’s own definition that the atheists aren’t using.

    • C Peterson

      If people would simply use the correct terms, there would be no need to “synchronize definitions” before communicating.

      • Jasper

        There are no “correct terms” in language, except by convention, which we clearly don’t have.

        • C Peterson

          Of course there are correct terms. Just because language is flexible, and because it changes and evolves, doesn’t mean that word choice is arbitrary. In any given context there are words that do better at conveying meaning, words that are worse, and words that are wholly inaccurate.

          Convention and consensus accurately define “atheist” as one who lacks belief in a god or gods. It is “agnostic” that has multiple, ambiguous meanings. Words like that are best left unused outside of more technical discussions. To simply label oneself “agnostic” is to increase confusion, not decrease it, and that’s an indicator of poor language usage.

          • Jasper

            “Just because language is flexible, and because it changes and evolves, doesn’t mean that word choice is arbitrary. In any given context there are words that do better at conveying meaning, words that are worse, and words that are wholly inaccurate.”

            Thanks for describing convention. Word choice based on context is when we’ve established a convention within that context – computer or programming jargon, for example. It’s not uncommon, however, to have terms that are “correct” within their convention context that are alien to their everyday usage; for instance, “bus” in computer architecture, versus within the context of vehicles.

            If everyone within the computer engineering business decided that “potato” would be used in place of “monitor”, that would become a correct term by convention. We shift and change our language all the time.

            “Convention and consensus accurately define “atheist” as one who lacks belief in a god or gods.”

            What convention? The 20% who call themselves atheist, or the 80% Christians who keep insisting that atheism is that absolute belief that gods don’t exist? Or all the non-theistic self-described agnostics? Which major differing faction is in authoritatively declaring which sets of definitions are “correct’ here, and why should we listen to them?

            Have you not noticed that, within the general theological debates, this argument about definitions popups up almost inevitably?

            That’s not convention, by definition.

            I happen to think that “atheist” = “lack of belief” is a better definition, but I wouldn’t call that “correct”, because, as others have pointed out, the “atheist = belief that God diesn’t exist” / “agnostic = don’t know”, is simpler to understand, and has utility in being succinct. It depends on one’s priorities.

            But “better” does not make it “correct”

            • C Peterson

              But “better” does not make it “correct”

              “Best” makes it correct, however. And there seems little doubt that if you’re going to use a single word to reflect a general lack of belief in gods, “atheist” is the best word to use. It is a word that is definitely correct.

              There is wide consensus about what “atheist” means among educated people. No such consensus exists at all with respect to “agnostic”.

              • 3lemenope

                And there seems little doubt that if you’re going to use a single word to reflect a general lack of belief in gods, “atheist” is the best word to use. It is a word that is definitely correct.

                So when a person, say, chooses to self-apply ‘agnostic’ instead of ‘atheist’, could it perhaps be that they don’t wish to express “a general lack of belief in gods”, but instead something else entirely?

                • C Peterson

                  Sure, that’s a possibility (although I’ve never met a person who called themselves an agnostic who wasn’t clearly an atheist on further questioning.

                  The problem is, if they mean something different, they should choose a word that reflects that. “Agnostic” does not, because it has no well defined meaning at all in common usage, and is highly ambiguous. There is absolutely no way to know the beliefs of a person who calls herself an agnostic without further questioning.

                • 3lemenope

                  Sure, that’s a possibility (although I’ve never met a person who called themselves an agnostic who wasn’t clearly an atheist on further questioning).

                  Then for not the first time, my advice to you would be “meet more people”. As Matt pointed out to you above, many people who self-apply ‘agnostic’ cash out their beliefs as deist; Matt’s observation certainly concords with my own, so that’s two data points better than an assumption to get you started.

                  I would suggest, beyond that, that anyone who thinks they really know what any other person on Earth believes based on a one-word label (even self-applied) is engaging in self-deception. You are an atheist and so am I, but I’d be willing to bet all the dollars in your pockets against all the dollars in mine that our experiences of that state of being, not to mention auxiliary beliefs on theological topics, are fairly incommensurate.

                  Perhaps a person picks an ambiguous term because they themselves feel ambivalently? In which case a more well-settled term would be an impediment for describing how they actually feel, rather than which box would be most convenient for their interlocutors to place them in.

                • C Peterson

                  You call yourself an atheist, and that tells me, with a very high degree of certainty, something about you: you don’t have a belief in gods. I don’t expect that one word to tell me anything else about your theological views. When a person calls themselves an agnostic, however, I learn almost nothing about them.

                  I will stick by my original assessment: most of the time the word simply reflects ignorance, cowardice, or dishonesty.

                • NateW

                  I guess it comes down to what virtues each person holds highest. If I have studied the evidence and feel that it is highly unlikely that a proposed deity exists then I must choose whether my own appraisal of the evidence is sufficient for absolute certainty.

                  Is it more brave to say, “I am certain that my view is correct” or to say “I don’t know with certainty if I am correct or not, for all I know it may not be possible to know this with certainty.”?

                  Which is to be more highly valued, knowing that you know it all, or knowing that you don’t need to know it all? In both cases the next question remains the same: “How then shall I live?” Isn’t this the question that will require the most bravery to answer?

                • C Peterson

                  It is almost always wrong to say you are certain your view is correct. Skeptics understand that. What does your comment have to do with any distinction between atheism and agnosticism?

                • NateW

                  You had said that “agnostic” simply reflects “ignorance, cowardice, or dishonesty.” I was working under the assumption that an agnostic is someone who believes that whether or not a god exists cannot be known while an atheist is one who believes that a god does not exist. I was trying to point out that, in some cases it can be braver, wiser, and more honest to admit that one’s own perspective is limited and to proceed with living without needing to know.

                  That said, I can see your point. I think that some people choose to call the selves agnostic because they are skeptical about the existence of a god, but are not reAdy to give up the idea of God.

                  “Agnostic” then can be an excuse to evade tough questions.

                • C Peterson

                  But atheism isn’t the belief that god doesn’t exist, and you’d be hard pressed to find one who makes that claim. Your definition of “agnostic” is quite accurate, and describes many atheists, and many theists. Either may quite reasonably believe the existence of a god can’t be known… a belief that has no bearing on the completely different belief (or lack of belief) in a god.

                • NateW

                  Ok, I gotcha. That makes sense to me. So, you are saying that anyone who holds their beliefs with a little humility, saying, “I don’t know for sure, but I choose to believe that there is/isn’t a god nonetheless could be called an agnostic?

                • C Peterson

                  I wouldn’t use the word “humility”, since I consider that particular trait a negative one.

                  It isn’t a mark of agnosticism to have humility, or doubt, or skepticism. An agnostic believes that the existence of a god is fundamentally unknowable, a question that cannot be answered. An agnostic might be skeptical about that (willing to change their mind, what I think you identify with “humility”) or dogmatic.

                  “I don’t know for sure” marks a skeptic, not an agnostic.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        If only English was a dead language. Damn the luck.

  • spitz

    Agnosticism is driven partly my a misunderstanding of atheism, not unlike Neil Degrasse Tyson saying he’s not an atheist because he equates atheism with a degree of interest in debate or activism. It was no different when the term was coined; the ideas were already well represented in arguments from atheists, but those were ignored, “agnosticism” was compared to a strawman and presented as an exception. This happens pretty often, and can be seen in the development of newer terms or concepts like theological noncognitivism. They’re basically restatements of arguments that had been around for centuries… but people forget about them, rediscover them, give them new titles and then compare them to the stereotypes that survived in place of people’s actual views. A sad example of this are the rationalist philosophies of antiquity that survive only in the criticisms religious people made of them.

    It’s why the criticism of atheism so many agnostics make is to ask why atheists are certain there is no god. If they direct that criticism at actual atheists, they’re almost guaranteed to be corrected, so it’s just a reminder that they haven’t participated in those conversations… or that they’re really stubborn. Not unlike the religious people whose response to the existence of moral atheists is to say: “if they really understood their worldview, they’d be immoral”, rather than correct their mistake.

    It’s a testament to the strong amount of misinformation that defines atheism and atheists throughout the world, but also a testament to the fact that no matter how many times the ideas we have are misunderstood, misrepresented, or outright erased, we’re more than capable of rediscovering them. There might be some confusion and the names might change, but they aren’t going away.

  • Bryan Sebeck

    Etymologically, they’re not mutually exclusive terms. One is a statement of belief, the other is a statement of knowledge. I don’t understand why so many people insist on treating them like they’re two points on the same scale.

    • 3lemenope

      I’d hazard that most people unconsciously allocate only a single label “slot” for each master category for each particular. So given a particular person, if the label slot is for “religious opinion”, most people want there to be one and only one word there, so they know how to answer the question “religious opinion?” when it comes to that person. Multiple dimensions of an identity is generally too much work to do for people and categories, especially for strangers and categories that don’t matter to one personally.

      • Bryan Sebeck

        I can completely understand that. But that’s separate from the issue of people who treat “agnostic” as some sort of in-between position. It over simplifies the situation and is the root of the whole “agnostic or atheist” debate.

    • Heathen Mike

      Thank you, Bryan, for expressing my thought so succinctly. There is much overlap in usage between both terms, and it would be rather silly and petty to get too continuous about these labels, as if we “non-believers” were entrenched in distinct, separate camps, ready to war with each other as much as with wacko zealots of the deist variety.

  • Malcolm McLean

    It’s the Bayesian theory.

    At this point, you’ve no information on whether I have a pet dog. So the only sensible position is agnostic, particularly if you know that dog ownership in the general population is high enough to make it unsurprising that I have a pet dog, but not high enough to make it surprising if I don’t. You can calculate the exact probability, by looking up the number of dog-owners in the population.

    Now let’s say I write a post making reference to my pet dog. Given that I’ve posted that, it’s much more likely that I’ve got a pet dog. But you haven’t seen it, all you’ve got is some text on the page, which could easily be a lie. But how likely is that? The problem is, now the statisticians can’t really help you. Given that text, how likely is it the pet dog is fabricated? Let’s say it’s a story about the dog recognising President Obama from TV, and barking at him when he came round, because I’d been saying negative things about the President in front of the telly. A highly unlikely incident – dogs don’t have that sort of ability, and it’s unusual for people to meet the president. But given that we reject the story, does that mean we also doubt the dog’s existence. if so, by how much? Impossible to answer in any simple way.

    Your atheist position is in fact the “no evidence” argument in disguise. If there’s no evidence either way, the probability that I have a dog is the general probability for the population. The probability that I have a dog called “Lucky” is essentially zero, dog namespace is too large. If I say I’ve got a dog called “Lucky”, however, the odds are drastically shortened. The matter is far from proven, but it’s no longer a case of a random proposition with no evidence to back it up.

    • Kodie

      Dogs exist, people name them, and they are well-known to be able to perform tricks if they’re taught. And my whole life doesn’t weigh on the fact that you have a dog, or that your dog hates Obama so there “must be something to your dog’s opinion” and therefore we must follow the dog you tell stories about. There is an even chance you do have a dog you taught tricks to as there is that you’re lying about being the owner or trainer of such a dog, plus, nobody cares. That’s nice, but nobody cares. Deities are fantastical creatures, mythical, and imaginary.

    • brianmacker

      According to Richard Carrier you can use Bayesianism to prove Chriat was not historical and I’m pretty sure also the non-existence of the Christian god.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      Man, I can’t imagine why people dismiss Apologetics with a snort and a roll of the eyes.

    • The Captain

      Here’s what always bothers me about this argument… I have evidence dogs exist in the first place! Hold on…. yep, there’s one outside in the neighbors yard right now, he’s looking through the fence at the other dog three doors down that’s barking. So this analogy you made is really just crap. A better one would be to replace “dog” with “sentient, levitating hairball creature that drinks all my bourbon” and then see if the agnostic position makes sense.

      • Malcolm McLean

        When you sneeze, that’s because invisible enemies are making you do it, so they can get out through your mouth, travel through the air, and attack other people. We now know that;s the case. But it would have seemed very implausible to an 18th century rationalist.

        If you take a detailed proposition at random, it’s vanishingly unlikely to be true. But the fact that it seems very implausible, given a current model of how the world works, is far from fatal.

  • SexyBitch69

    My issue with agnosticism is that it asserts the doctrine of skepticism. To submit a positive claim is to claim knowledge of something. “I have knowledge that knowledge is not attainable/probably does not exist” This presents a fallacy called “The Fallacy of Asserting Skepticism”. The claim is fallacious because it violates the law of non-contradiction.

    • Michael Harrison

      Um, no. This sort of trip-up is exactly where people get confused when, say, they discuss Goedel in terms of “true” and “not true,” instead of “provable” and “not provable.” It is very important to draw a distinction between statements made within a logical system, and statements made *about* the logical system.

  • C Peterson

    Thank you, Hemant! You’re dead on with this one, and it’s an important point.

    99% of the time, a self-identified “agnostic” is just an intellectually dishonest atheist, or one too chicken to use the correct word to describe what they believe. And true agnostics, of whom there are quite a few, are as likely to be theists as they are atheists, so placing agnosticism onto some sort of scale between theism and atheism makes absolutely no sense.

    We already have a perfectly accurate word for a person who believes there isn’t enough evidence to completely reject the possibility of a god: “skeptic”.

    • 3lemenope

      99% of the time, a self-identified “agnostic” is just an intellectually dishonest atheist, or one too chicken to use the correct word to describe what they believe.

      Visiting the intentions of 99% of the agnostics of the world is a really neat trick you’ll have to teach me some time.

      • Jiiri

        You know it’s possible to get what is a perfectly good point across without snarkiness and arrogance.

        • The Other Weirdo

          Sure. It’s also possible to live without Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. But where would the fun in that be?

    • Matt

      I feel like I’ve met way more “agnostics” who would fit more into the category of deists than atheists. “There probably is a god, but likely not the Christian god” type opinions.

      • Wayne D

        That would be me, though I lean towards theism, just not that emotionally messed up god of the Old Testament. My feeling is that if there is a god, it is so far beyond anything we could imagine and nothing like that human emotionally driven god in the Bible.

        • C Peterson

          There’s a word that accurately describes people who lean towards theism: “theist”. The word applies equally well if you are agnostic or not.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    Words don’t get their meanings from the dictionary. They get them from the way that the words are used.

    What is important about agnosticism, is that it is not atheism. It is a term people choose for themselves because they don’t agree with a lot that is said in the name of atheism. The distinction between “agnosticism” and “atheism” has more to do with positions in the culture wars than with technical philosophical definitions.

    I’ll use myself as an example. I am not offended if people say I am atheist, but it is not the term I would choose. My preference is for “non-religious”.

    When an atheist group sued the town of Zion, Illinois, demanding that they change to a non-religious name, I don’t want to be associated with that. I’ll agree with them on some battles, but not on that one. When an atheist groups makes a fuss over the pledge of allegiance, because it contains the “G” word, I shake my head in dismay. The trouble with the pledge of allegiance is that it is a pledge, an appeal to tribalism. That it contains the “G” word is a far more minor defect.

    • corps_suk

      Ok, I agree with your first point on Zion, thats pretty ridiculous.
      But, the god in the pledge thing. Here we are using the state to require children to subjugate our country and our flag to be “under god”. Many children don’t accept this yet are pressured by government entities to say it anyway, this is the definition of indoctrination.
      This is were the word atheist has it problems for me. Why do we cede the initial position that there is a god and we have to be against it? That is my main issue with the god in the pledge, it sets kids with the initial premise that there is a god and they have to grow from there. I am not an Azeusist, or an Ahorusist, or an Athorist…I am a realist.

    • Kodie

      The thing about atheism is it doesn’t have a doctrine. If you don’t care about a town called Zion, don’t join the atheists fighting that battle. If your particular problem with the US Pledge of Allegiance isn’t quite the same as other people who call themselves atheists, you can still be an atheist and just not be as bothered by the word “god” in it as you are with the practice altogether. I think both ways on that one – take the word god out is important, but I also think if you pledge something, it lasts forever and doesn’t need to be repeated every day like brushing one’s teeth; and if you pledge something, it should be sincere and people should care that you’re sincere about it. Reciting something daily without understanding it is merely the doing of a trained animal, and does not teach history or give the person a choice to pledge or not pledge, once they understand what it is they are pledging for or to. As you can see, the problem with adults who enforce the recitation at town meetings or such, or who vote that the pledge stays in school and is “important” for some reason, are also thinking it’s like being forced to eat your vegetables – you need the nutrition whether you like it or not, and one day, you’ll just understand the responsibilities of keeping healthy. I think a lot of adults don’t actually eat their vegetables, literally, because once nobody is making you, you stop doing things people made you do that you don’t like. As such, I do not recite the Pledge every morning, because I’m not in school anymore.

  • Michael Harrison

    Suppose two people are 99.99% convinced there is no such being as God. One self-describes with the term ‘atheist,’ the other self-describes with the term ‘agnostic.’ On average, is there a distinction significant enough to warrant different descriptions of them? I think of it in terms of pragmatism. (I say this as a self-described agnostic.)

    • 3lemenope

      I’d say it only matters in the context of philosophical investigation. When it comes to the simple social matter of what a person wants to call themselves, I can’t see how it matters much.

    • C Peterson

      There is a distinction. Both are atheists. The one who calls himself that accurately conveys his view to listeners. The one who calls himself “agnostic” does not, and must invest quite a few additional words of explanation if he wants his viewpoint understood. After all, a person who is 99.99% convinced that there is a god might call himself “agnostic” with complete accuracy, as well.

      • Michael Harrison

        I think of gods the same way I think of the fifth force (well, fourth force, now) of physics. Just because there’s no evidence for such a thing doesn’t mean there’s no reason not to keep looking.

        • C Peterson

          That’s fine. But “agnostic” in no way helps anybody understand that viewpoint.

          • Michael Harrison

            That’s exactly why I hate bumper stickers: no description short enough to fit on a sticker would be enough to describe my position. “Agnostic” is my attempt to describe, in one word, that I have no problem with belief in such beings, as long as the belief is accompanied with an awareness that the evidence is lacking, and that therefore, skepticism is rational (which would rule out most Internet Christians). However, whether belief is rational or irrational, I feel, depends on how the particular believer prioritizes things.

            • C Peterson

              Unfortunately, your choice of words doesn’t do what you want. From your description, you are a typical atheist. Why not use that word? And if further clarification is required, you can use the opportunity to explain what a skeptic is, and what skepticism actually means- a far more important lesson for most people than any fine points of atheism.

              • Michael Harrison

                Because every so often, I actually take this view, myself, and I acknowledge it is most likely a result of human emotional need, as well as how our brains tend to over-perceive agency. Combine with my OCD, which may be what drives me to think about it in an all-or-nothing manner, and you have someone who doesn’t think “atheist” is an accurate reflection of his views.

                • Michael Harrison

                  I will, however, concede that the notion of ‘god’ is nebulous. That said, would you agree that, if it were possible to prove the universe were conscious, this consciousness could accurately be described by the word ‘god’ according to any definition that includes a Deist god?

                • C Peterson

                  No, I probably wouldn’t make that connection. Deism generally means a belief in some sort of intelligent creator that takes no role in running the Universe. A conscious Universe would seem to me to simply represent a different sort of life form. And if it was consciously directing the operation of the Universe (although there’s something circular there…) I’d say it’s much better described by “god” according to theist viewpoints, not deist.

                • Michael Harrison

                  Perhaps it would be analogous to conscious flexing of muscles.

                  Though, of course, I will quickly and gladly concede that this leads to two more difficulties: one, the difficulty found in most discussions of consciousness; and two, the question of why, if there were such an intelligence, no previous evidence for its existence had ever been seen before.

              • sane37

                Some people are afraid to be branded an Atheist since it has such a bad reputation in the USA. It still does not excuse their cowardice.

                • C Peterson

                  It still does not excuse their cowardice.

                  I understand why some people are not in a position to be open about their atheism. I don’t consider them cowards for not coming out. But to call yourself an agnostic is a bit of a cheat. That does strike me as rather cowardly most of the time. Stay in the closet, or say what you are. Don’t pretend that an agnostic (as most people use the term) is somehow different from an atheist.

                • sane37

                  agreed.

              • Jan

                Many people assume atheists do have a problem with the idea of the existence of any God or gods, e.g. Richard Dawkins style. So the word _atheist_ isn’t doing what you want, outside of your circles. I personally think _agnostic_ is more useful for what you are describing as someone who is unconvinced of the evidence.

            • C.L. Honeycutt

              Personally I hate bumper stickers because I always almost crash while laughing when I see someone who still has a BUSH-Cheney or A MCCAIN-Palin sticker going.

            • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marina-Organ/100002015770923 Marina Organ

              I’m an agnostic because I cannot rationally disprove or prove anything. I find a hard science approach to reality is the most reassuring but logically, if I want to stay a scientist, have to reserve a grain of doubt about EVERYTHING my senses hear, read and experience. Also, any other approach just feels arrogant.

              • C Peterson

                Good for you. But that makes you a skeptic, not an agnostic.

  • viaten

    I don’t think it’s quite fair to compare God to a flying unicorn when talking about what’s more believable. One is well defined, the other has various nebulous definitions.

    I’ve heard that an agnostic is a timid atheist (and the same for deist to agnostic) which may sometimes be the case. Also, it seems one could be atheist with regard to the more concretely defined biblical God, but agnostic with regard to a personal higher being, but believe in a greater something of some kind of purpose. In any case, I would not fault a person, timid or not, for saying they’re agnostic. For them, it might be a bold step on their part on the way to saying they’re atheist.

  • Sam Salerno

    I read this same answer in the new A.C. Grayling book “The God Argument.” Agnosticism appears to give a 50/50 chance for a god. But realistically the odds are close to no chance.

  • JET

    There are actual definitions of words and there are popularly used definitions of words. Many people who define themselves as agnostic (including me at one point in my life) are using the word as a soft, less confrontational term for the non-belief in deities. Many who define themselves as agnostic really mean that they don’t believe in any gods. But many who hear someone say they are agnostic, assume “you just haven’t decided yet.” Even though the term is being used/understood incorrectly, it serves a purpose to do so.
    I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is a perfect example of this. He is an educator whose primary goal is to draw people, particularly young people, toward scientific discovery. He knows perfectly well what the dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic are, but he chooses the popular definition to define himself as it is less confrontational. It allows believers to continue to listen to what he has to say rather than plug their ears because he’s a “damned atheist.”

  • James Kirk Wall

    Hemant, if you truly want to learn more about agnosticism please check out this article. http://www.chicagonow.com/an-agnostic-in-wheaton/2012/12/%E2%80%9Clack-of-belief%E2%80%9D-blurs-the-line-between-atheist-and-agnostic/
    And I can certainly discuss this further with you if you are interested.
    Cheers!
    James Kirk Wall

  • jeffj900

    Theism is a fairly well defined notion of God, and it’s the one I reject most certainly as an atheist.

    You can proceed to make more and more vague notions of God, but as that might increase the probability of existence, what kind of God you are committing to becomes less and less substantial. A vague Einsteinian Pantheism is not the kind of God most religious people would believe in, and it really is nothing more than the sense of reverence and awe most scientists have for the grandeur of nature.

    If your idea of God includes the supernatural, and an ability to intercede by altering natural laws, there simply is no evidence.

    If your notion of whatever mystery that preceded the Big Bang includes any kind of conscious intentional being, I think it is ultimately a projection of anthropomorphic qualities onto something far more mysterious than that. On earth we have two major paradigms for how things come into being; one is that a designer conceives of it and then builds it. This is how humans create things. The other is that they grow and develop from seeds, gradually accumulating material size and structure according to natural rules in a natural energetic process. Growth is merely a consumption or exchange of energy that simply unfolds naturally without requiring any conscious will. Such processes can take many forms, including the formation and burning of stars. This latter paradigm is that of evolution, and it seems as likely or more likely to be behind the origins of the Universe than a reasoning intentional human-like consciousness. Any appeal to a great being is suspect. It answers nothing because it merely pushes the questions on to what is the origin of this great being? And any vague idea that God is a cosmic sea of love or mind energy or whatever again seems like anthropomorphizing, and thus most likely wrong.

    Whatever the truth is about where everything came from, the only honest answer is “we don’t know”, and any possible conception of God the human mind can produce is just story telling to fill an uncomfortable void. Whatever we learn and know about the universe will not come from mysticism or revelation, it will come from methods of discovering truth about reality that have advanced our knowledge exponentially in the last few centuries, far more than any other method could during the history of humans. And the answers, if we can ever have them or grasp them, are unlikely to be anything we can ever dream of.

    So for me to be an atheist is to be open to new reliable evidence, but to regard the imaginings of human mythology, based on available evidence, to be a very unlikely source of ultimate truth, and to humbly acknowledge the tiny insignificance of humans in the grand scheme of things, accepting that it is extremely unlikely that all this space and time and energy exists for the sake of humans, a central and beloved component in some divine plan. It seems more likely again that this is human wishful thinking, human folly, and just more anthropomorphizing of the universe. Rather than imprint our small minds on reality and pretend to have the answers, better to learn whatever we can from the proven effectiveness of empirical inquiry, and admit that beyond what we know we simply do not know. You might call this a true agnostic stance, which does not even dare to make the bold and arrogant wager that a God conceivable by the tiny human mind is as likely to exist as not. Instead it recognizes that any conjecture for which there is no evidence is likely to be wrong. This is the most humble, least certain, and most accurate way for us to address the mystery of the unknown.

    • NateW

      The thing is though, to be an atheist requires that you have a certain conception of what “god” is. You can only “not believe in” that which you know. In other words, to be an atheist requires that you believe that there is no way of conceiving of God other than the one(s) you know.

      Would you say that a skeptic is someone who does not believe in the version of god that they are familiar with but is open to the idea that there may be other ways of talking about god that may or may not be true? Or would this be an agnostic?

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        I categorically reject anything supernatural as having a distinct lack of evidence. Whether it’s elves, faeries, gods, demons, spirits, ghosts, Bigfoot, or some unknown beyond-human-conception entity(ies), until there’s evidence it exists or even can exist, I don’t believe it does.

        I consider myself a skeptic, agnostic atheist. I know this doesn’t exactly answer your question; labels are a personal thing when their denotations are so fuzzy. You seem fairly skeptical to me, though your ability to entertain clearly absurd notions* as more than theoretically possible is faintly troubling.

        *Ways of talking about god that may or may not be true but only if gods are beyond human conception which means we have no vocabulary to talk about them. I consider this a nonsensical way to view the world and the possibility of deities.

      • jeffj900

        Theism is a fairly well defined notion of God, and it’s the one I reject most certainly as an atheist.

        You can proceed to make more and more vague notions of God, but as that might increase the probability of existence, what kind of God you are committing to becomes less and less substantial. A vague Einsteinian Pantheism is not the kind of God most religious people would believe in, and it really is nothing more than the sense of scientists all have for the grandeur of nature.

        If your idea of God includes the supernatural, and an ability to intercede by letting natural laws, there simply is no evidence.

        If your notion of whatever mystery that preceded the Big Bang includes any kind of conscious intentional being, I think it is ultimately a projection of anthropomorphic qualities onto something far more mysterious than that. On earth we have two major paradigms for how things come into being; one is that a designer conceives of it and then builds it. This is how humans create things. The other is that they grow and develop from seeds, gradually accumulating material size and structure according to natural rules in a natural energetic process. Growth is merely a consumption or exchange of energy that simply unfolds naturally without requiring any conscious will. Such processes can take many forms, including the formation and burning of stars. This latter paradigm is that of evolution, and it seems as likely or more likely to be behind the origins of the Universe than a reasoning intentional human-like consciousness. Any appeal to a great being is suspect. It answers nothing because it merely pushes the questions on to what is the origin of this great being? And any vague idea that God is a cosmic sea of love or mind energy or whatever again seems like anthropomorphizing, and thus most likely wrong.

        Whatever the truth is about where everything came from, the only honest answer is “we don’t know”, and any possible conception of God the human mind can produce is just story telling to fill an uncomfortable void. Whatever we learn and know about the universe will not come from mysticism or revelation, it will come from methods of discovering truth about reality that have advanced our knowledge exponentially in the last few centuries, far more than any other method could during the history of humans. And the answers, if we can ever have them or grasp them, are unlikely to be anything we can ever dream of.

        So for me to be an atheist is to be open to new reliable evidence, but to regard the imaginings of human mythology, based on available evidence, to be a very unlikely source of ultimate truth, and to humbly acknowledge the tiny insignificance of humans in the grand scheme of things, accepting that it is extremely unlikely that all this space and time and energy exists for the sake of humans, a central and beloved component in some divine plan. It seems more likely again that this is human wishful thinking, human folly, and just more anthropomorphizing of the universe. Rather than imprint our small minds on reality and pretend to have the answers, better to learn whatever we can from the proven effectiveness of empirical inquiry, and admit that beyond what we know we simply so not know. You might call this a true agnostic stance, which does not even dare to make the bold and arrogant wager that a God conceivable by the tiny human mind is as likely to exist as not. Instead it recognizes that any conjecture for which there is no evidence is likely to be wrong. This is the most humble, least certain, and most accurate way for us to address the mystery of the unknown.

      • jeffj900

        Somehow I edited my reply into my original post above. So the original is gone and replaced by the response meant to be here…

      • sane37

        Without evidence, there is no green teapot orbiting the Earth. Even if you can’t disprove it.

  • Jonas

    Thisi question – where is Agnostism on the spectrum is part of why I invented my own term to describe myself -> Agnodeist. See the link for my ‘Interview at a church’

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyHRRhoEMP4&feature=youtu.be

    The problem I saw when defined by most fundamentalist, evengelicals I met was ‘they defined it as ‘Unsure of my Christian God’ – when under my definition of God, I’m pretty much on the unbelief side. — No young earth creation, no great plan, not Reward Punishment after death – etc.

    However — (As I explain in my talk) nor am I a cosmologist, nor do I take Laurence Krauss at his word – in ‘A Universe From Nothing’ – A Deistic God could have created the Universe, Space & Time etc. — From some place outside of Space & Time, but there is no evidence for anything godlike interfering with our lives. — Thus no Theism.
    Deism – Is unprovable, irrelevant to me, — But if a Creator helps to give you meaning, I don’t object to you having that belief.

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    The problem with people talking about Agnosticism is, they tend to approach, and define, it according to their own worldview, not in the way it had been intended to be used. This is pretty much inexcusable, since — unlike other terms relating to religion and metaphysics — it was coined by Thomas H. Huxley in the 19th century as a label for his own views, and he explains exactly what they were:

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

    He later elaborated on it a little more:

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

    It is not a “middle position” between theism and atheism, as Hemant says in the video, and as a lot of atheists and theists now think. It is its own approach to the problem of belief in deities and does not fit into the continuum that runs between the two.

    It’s worthwhile to recall that Huxley had some contemporaries who adopted his term as descriptions of themselves. The best-known of these in the U.S. is Robert Ingersoll, who in fact was widely known as “the Great Agnostic.” Even so, current atheists have adopted people like Ingersoll as “atheists” too — even though they very clearly identified as “agnostics” as opposed to “atheism.”

    The reason they do this is because atheists have widened the definition of “atheism” as it existed in Huxley’s day so as to include others, including those who would have fallen under his definition of “agnostic” which he was forced to coin because “atheism” did not fit him (and them). I get why they do that — it’s to make their movement into a “Big Tent” — but unfortunately this causes them to misrepresent what “agnosticism” is, and in turn, to lie about agnostics and what they think.

    To get back to Hemant’s remarks: He says he affirmatively does not believe in unicorns because there is no evidence of their existence and there’s no point in assuming they might. I agree this is sound reasoning. But, although this sounds like a really good analogy that makes agnostics look like wishy-washy bone-headed fools, it fails: Unicorns are rather specific (in legend anyway). They resemble horses or ponies, and have single horns on their heads. We can look for evidence of such creatures; since there is none, it’s not unreasonable to assume they don’t exist.

    But the idea of “god” is far too general to approach that way. That said, it’s possible to look at specific deities, to which religious tradition has assigned certain properties, and decide, based on those properties and their implications, whether or not there is any evidence of their existence. In the case of the Abrahamic God, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that an omnipotent, eternal, omniscient and benevolent deity is contradictory in nature and cannot logically exist. Being an agnostic does not prevent someone from reaching such a conclusion (although it also doesn’t require it, either).

    For me the bottom line is that, as an agnostic, I’m nevertheless atheistic toward the Abrahamic deity, as Judeo-Christian-Islamic believers envision him. I’m also atheistic toward a lot of other deities, likewise as their followers envision them. But, I can’t help but be agnostic about deities in general, since there’s not enough information to go on, in order either to rule out their existence or confirm it.

    On the flip side, a lot of theists approach agnostics as though they have one foot firmly planted in their own territory and assume we’re “open” to everything they say. That also is foolish on their part and is their own subjective interpretation of agnosticism … again, one that happens to be convenient for them to hold onto.

    It’s time for both atheists and theists to stop lying about agnosticism and begin talking to agnostics as the agnostics they are, not as people like themselves who’re idiots or wayward or whatever.

    • Amakudari

      Huxley’s description seems to imply that atheists have certainty that no gods exist. Very few atheists I know would accept that description of their views. Many including me would agree with what you’ve said that Yahweh is contradictory, yet we can’t rule out all gods.

      It still feels like we’re drawing a larger distinction than exists because how atheists and agnostics describe themselves overlap significantly. I think the actual difference between a self-described atheist and agnostic today is most likely to be what they want their label to emphasize.

      • 3lemenope

        I think the actual difference between a self-described atheist and agnostic today is most likely to be what they want their label to emphasize.

        I think one needs no better reason than that to keep calling them agnostics.

      • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

        Re: “Huxley’s description seems to imply that atheists have certainty that no gods exist.”

        Yes. This shouldn’t be surprising, since that’s what the word meant, in his time. And it’s the reason he had to coin a new word to describe his own views.

        Re: “Very few atheists I know would accept that description of their views.”

        As I said, that’s because they’ve redefined the word, so it has a much larger range of meaning than it used to.

        Re: “Many including me would agree with what you’ve said that Yahweh is contradictory, yet we can’t rule out all gods.”

        It’s not possible to rule out “all gods” because one can’t specify all the possible gods that might exist. “God” as a general notion is far too non-specific to be able to do that.

        Re: “It still feels like we’re drawing a larger distinction than exists because how atheists and agnostics describe themselves overlap significantly.

        In Huxley’s time, by his own account, there was no such overlap. It didn’t exist. That’s why he was forced to coin a new word to describe his own thinking. The description of “agnostic” that he originally came up with, though, still applies to people today. That atheists have redefined “atheism” to mean much more than it once did, and have assumed themselves the right to assign “agnostics” to their own camp, hasn’t changed that.

    • Michael Harrison

      I have no problem with the possibility that such a being is ambivalent, or even malevolent.

      • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

        Well, you or I might not … but it’s not within the Abrahamic tradition, which very clearly views its deity as benevolent. There might conceivably be some being upon which the JCI tradition is based … but JCI tradition can’t accurately describe it, because that creature can logically only be malevolent in nature.

  • Amakudari

    I can understand that there are several reasons to call oneself agnostic rather than atheist, like wanting to emphasize uncertainty, not wanting to sound confrontational, disliking some vocal atheists, etc., but it seems like it rarely has much to do with philosophical disagreement. I guess that’s why I’ve always liked the term “agnostic atheist,” in that we don’t have full knowledge but can still reject the proposition that a god exists.

    Or to be even more specific, I believe Dan Fincke called himself a “gnostic atheist and agnostic adeist,” which while wordy still reflects most views under the “atheist” banner. That is, we can dismiss the very, very specific gods posited by humans who created the world in a caricature of what we can best understand scientifically, care deeply about sex, and will torture us forever if we don’t believe on the basis of almost no evidence. The idea of something god-like existing is harder to dismiss, but it’s also less pressing and more of a philosophical problem.

    • sane37

      Its easy to dismiss something for which there is no hard evidence.

      Belief is not evidence.

  • 3lemenope

    This conversation somewhat uncomfortably reminds me of the perennial push against hyphenated-American nomenclature. If some American citizen of Mexican ancestry, say, wants to identify themselves as a Mexican-American, is it really appropriate to insist, well, no, you’re just an American, because it says so on the citizenship line?

    People choose to emphasize the parts of an identity that are meaningful to them. If a person, upon thinking about religion, feels that agnostic is the part of their religious stance they think best sums up how they approach the issues therein, why insist instead on calling them a part of their identity they chose not to emphasize?

  • Spongman

    How can you accurately discuss these philosophical terms when you’re not prepared to discuss them philosophically. When you use such wishy-washy definitions, no wonder you confusing, contentious conclusions. Theism refers to one’s belief, gnosticism (small ‘g’) refers to one’s knowledge. It’s disingenuous to say that agnosticism is ‘in between’ theism and atheism. It’s not. That’s like saying north is between east and west. It’s not.

  • Paul R.

    I feel right now that even Agnostic isn’t wishy-washy enough for me. I’m not even that.

  • Mario Strada

    My biggest problem with identifying with Agnosticism is that for the religious an agnostic is someone on the spectrum between theist and atheist and therefore someone that can more easily be reined in back into the fold of religion.

    Many times I have been rebuffed by fundamentalists when I defined myself as an “atheist” because clearly it created a deep unease, a cognitive dissonance, in their world view. I couldn’t be one of those people they grew up to hate and despise because they got to know me and consider me their friend.

    So their strategy has been to redefine the term by which I call myself with one they feel more comfortable with. One that gives them hope instead of one they find hopeless.

    But agnosticism is not a stop on the road from atheism to theism. It may be for some people, but it a separate stance in regard to religion that is actually not incompatible with atheism, as we all know.

    One of the reasons why I don’t call myself an agnostic is that I don’t want to give these people a reason to think I am not committed to my atheism.

    • Michael Harrison

      Because of this, I try to make clear as quickly as possible, when talking with such people, that I am fully aware that if Christianity is correct, I am going to Hell, and this doesn’t scare me.

    • Heathen Mike

      You make an excellent point of “agnostic” seeming like an invitation for “believers” to try to win back to their side of beliefs. That can be tedious. But that is precisely why I like to use the agnostic label often-times. I want to project a stance of inviting discussion on the topic of theism. “Atheist” implies to many a challenge, a dare to the religious. I often like to have Christians (for fundamentalist Christian was my background in my formative years) feel like they can talk to me about their faith and ask me questions about why I think the way I do.

  • jreed3000

    As we grow, we depend on language more and more and so our sense of reality becomes increasingly abstract. Some of these abstractions have ties to physical reality (evidence), some don’t. It is very important that we are able to tell the difference between the two.

    The real question isn’t Does god exist? but rather What is the nature of god’s existence? Generally we conclude that entities for which there is no physical evidence do not really exist in physical reality.

    Those things which exist in our imaginations cannot actually be proven or disproved because there can be no evidence for them one way or the other. A metaphysical argument cannot be used to prove the physical existence of a metaphysical entity.

    I think the labels (agnostic, atheist, theist, etc.) obscure the real question which is: Is an individual’s emotional need to believe strong enough to ignore the lack of evidence. If it is, discussions with them is a waste of time. But the idea that we could elect another “faith based” leader to make decisions for all of us is frightening. The first step to prevent that is to speak out. The agnostic position, which is generally viewed as an apologist position, does not help that cause.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    There is not a single commonly accepted definition of either atheism or agnosticism. For me, picking which term I use (for example on my Facebook page) depends on which erroneous definition I find less offense with and which erroneous definition would cause me the least amount of negative social ramifications. I prefer atheism to mean a lack of belief in God or gods. Others, though, have it mean a denial that God or gods exist and some extend it further to mean an immoral person – some kind of monster. I prefer that agnosticism means a stance that certain propositions about the nature of and existence of God and gods are intrinsically unknowable. Others have agnosticism mean a wishy-washy middle-ground between believing there are gods and there are not gods – or someone who doesn’t really know what they believe. I find no problem with identifying with my preferred definition of both atheism and agnosticism. As for the definitions that I do not prefer, I find fewer negative social ramifications for the agnostic label so I use that on my Facebook page with my real name. When I comment in blogs hiding behind a psudonym, I more frequently refer to myself as an atheist. I’m sorry. That is just the way it is. I do make an attempt when conversing with others to point out my preferred definitions of the terms.

  • Kodie

    Everyone is agnostic, especially theists. They are all, 100% of them, speculating themselves out of a corner where their god cannot exist. If there is a god, not one theist can pretend to know what he is, or what he wants.

    • C Peterson

      I don’t know what “everyone is agnostic” means. Nobody knows for certain if any gods exist. But many people (virtually all of them theists) claim such certainty. I can’t see calling them agnostics by any accepted meaning of the word.

      • Kodie

        They can claim certainty until the cows come home.

        • C Peterson

          They can. That just makes them wrong. They aren’t agnostic.

          • Kodie

            Oh, I see how it is here.

    • Heathen Mike

      Re. If there is a god, not one theist can pretend to know what he is, or what he wants.

      …except, apparently, that god is male. (chuckle.)

      Kodie, I know mine is a snarky comment. Please know I don’t mean it as a slap against you. It just amuses me, so I could not help myself.

  • Ryan Hite

    I think we should all truly be that way. We don’t know whether or not any sort of deity exists either way. Leaning towards not being a god is weak atheism and leaning towards the possibility of a god is deism.

  • iamfantastikate

    I think you’re great, Hemant, and I love your site, but I’ll admit I’m really tired of this labeling argument, so much so that I should probably just not comment, but here goes, anyway!

    I don’t get why “agnostic” is so much more frustrating to the atheist community than skeptic, nontheist/nonreligious, freethinker, etc., and I probably never will. Are we really seeking to have the same “unity” that many Christian denominations and sects have under the label “Christian”? Are we that uncomfortable with more individualized identities and labels?

    There will never be a “true” or “right” way of handling these labels, and the atheist community would do well to realize that before rigidity alienates people who would otherwise agree on actual points of philosophy, science, religion, etc. You know…the things that matter? Not only do these labels mean different things to different individuals, they mean different things in different places and times. It’s completely unfair, bordering on absurd, not to acknowledge that.

    For me, I am an atheist in the sense that I don’t believe in any of the currently popular gods or the old ones and can almost guarantee none will impress me in the future; that is me adhering to a strict definition. But it’s not that simple because language and context are not simple.

    I am agnostic in the sense that (1) I believe there are some things we may never know and feel agnosticism sometimes better encompasses this concept, and sorry to all who might lose their shit over that, but that’s just the way of it; (2) agnosticism, as a label, is more practical when talking to theists who shut down the minute the word “atheist” is mentioned; and (3) I am not always comfortable with being connected to the atheist “community.” The first two reasons need no explanation, I think, but I’ll elaborate on the third.

    There is absolutely no doubt that “bad behavior” (i.e., being a dick) in the modern atheist community at large has nothing on “bad behavior” (i.e., acid attacks and “legitimate rape”) in today’s religions. Not denying that, so please, no one start on that. But I’ve also seen too many atheists say and excuse things that I’m not always comfortable aligning myself with; two wrongs do not a right make, even when the “degrees” of wrongness are at opposite ends of a spectrum. It’s all well and good that people think the word “atheist” shouldn’t automatically align a person with anything positive or negative, but that’s simply not how language works. People make associations, and controlling those associations isn’t always easy, much less practical.

    When I’m around people who are more educated about what atheism means, the label is fine, and I often use it for simplicity. These people treat it as “Oh, okay, you have no religion,” and we move on and have dinner. Others who know less, though, are all too familiar with negative news articles, churches’ propaganda, etc. And then I can’t argue with anyone who’s put off by some atheists: those who laugh or even rejoice, even if only online, when the religious become victims of their ignorance; those who think taking on memorial crosses on the sides of roads is a valuable use of time and money; those who dare call themselves “critical thinkers” while using and lauding shoddy “science” to perpetuate religion-inspired sexism, racism, and/or homophobia.

    Agnosticism has no clear associations. It may imply spirituality, atheism, apathy, or any number of things. It hardly ever implies something negative, though, except to religious fundamentalists and some atheists, both of whom are sometimes very annoyed about what labels individuals decide to use for themselves. Sometimes people want labels that come without baggage; that that is the case shouldn’t be a big deal.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Believe me, I could care less about labels. But the question posed was what I thought about that word and, in my experience, the reasons people give for being agnostic are the same ones that would place them in the atheist category

      • iamfantastikate

        I think many acknowledge that, which is one of the reasons I see the discussion as unnecessary to some degree, particularly when it gets heated, for whatever reason, which I’ve seen a fair bit of in the last year on atheist sites.

        Even Thomas Huxley, the man who coined the word agnostic, knew Christians thought of him as atheist and atheists wondered why he wouldn’t use the label. Wiki and About.com have some good stuff on him if you’ve not read much on him before, though maybe you have: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Henry_Huxley_and_agnosticism#Thomas_Henry_Huxley and http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutagnosticism/a/huxley.htm

        I think so long as both religious titles–Christian, Jew, Hindu, whatever–and atheism have the potential to cause controversy, there will always be a need for a “middle ground” label, even if the strict definition of it isn’t actually in use.

      • Elddim Eman

        With all due respect, Hemant, you do care about labels. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have admonished agnostics to move over to self-identify as atheists in your video clip. If you really “could care less about labels,” you’d have said something like this: “If someone wants to call himself or herself an agnostic — even if he or she is a non-theist — then that’s fine. Period.”

  • Agnostic Universe

    Agnosticism isn’t in the middle of a spectrum for belief because it concerns knowledge of gods and not god beliefs. In response to this video I have to ask: what’s the deal with atheism? I could say atheism is a reactionary term that just means you reject theism. Why not use a term that better describes the limits of human knowledge concerning the supernatural? This is what agnosticism provides and isn’t a “wishy washy” middle ground on beliefs. I don’t recall reading anything from Huxley about it being a “wishy washy” middle ground term when he created it. If you read what he wrote about not identifying with atheism, it was the strong anti-theist form of atheism of his time that he was referring to and not the weak atheism many claim today. This is causing much confusion with agnosticism since agnostics and weak atheists are agreeable and overlapping positions. They have essentially the same result even though they answer the god “question” from two different questions for belief and knowledge.

    Who are these theists anyway? I’ve known people that calls themselves Catholics, Methodists, Hindus, Christians, etc., but I’ve never met anyone that called themselves theist. Theism is the collective term that unbelievers call the religions. Christians, etc. (those theist people) believe what they believe based on faith alone. Atheism only exists as a term to describe those that don’t have a religion. There would be no atheism without religions so why do people think this term is such a wonderful term when all it means is you disbelieve?

    The religious say to us that they believe and the atheist term only says to them in response that you don’t believe them.

    Agnosticism isn’t about belief at all. Yes, let’s stick to the basic definition of agnostic. It’s not that you don’t take a position on god since the term for that is secular. Agnostic literally means without knowledge and was created to speak of being without knowledge of gods. If we’re without knowledge then we don’t assume gods might be there since there’s no knowledge for it. Belief doesn’t enter into at all. We don’t know so don’t bother me with your religious nonsense. I don’t know where the universe came from or why because nobody knows that.

    Christian beliefs without knowledge is still just a Christian. Throwing agnostic on faith-based beliefs doesn’t meaningfully modify the term just like female theist is accurate but doesn’t change the belief term. Agnosticism speaks of knowledge instead of belief or disbelief. The agnostic that evaluates current human knowledge honestly would most likely agree with weak atheism. I can’t guarantee all agnostics think that way because we don’t all agree on standards of human knowledge. We are human after all. Regardless, agnosticism is a method of open-minded skepticism and not a permanent destination of proven disbelief.

    Agnostics aren’t digging in and hardening their minds against the possibility of anything supernatural ever being true. This is why atheism is unappealing to some agnostics because they think atheism means any potential god concepts is proven false and disbelief is permanent and eternal. I know this isn’t true of all atheists just like it isn’t true all agnostics are wishy washy. Personally, I’m a weak atheist today and don’t care if you call me one. Agnosticism does imply that I may not always remain a weak atheist if some knowledge of the supernatural were ever discovered. I’m sure if it is then the truth will be nothing like the primitive religions people believe today. I’ll probably be a weak atheist until I die but I honestly don’t know if we’ll always remain ignorant of the origin for this universe.

    Strong atheism should just leave agnosticism alone if you don’t identify with it or agree with it. I could say that disbelief is a wishy washy and somewhat childish reaction to belief if I wanted to attack something that doesn’t neatly align with how I think. There’s absolutely no reason to stop calling myself agnostic since I place the utmost importance with knowledge. I acknowledge the limits of what we know concerning what may be beyond our known phenomena. Huxley spoke of what may be beyond what has been dreamt of in our philosophies. His descriptions of agnosticism resonates with me. I am agnostic.

    When the religious say to me that they believe, I explain to them that knowledge is more important than belief or disbelief with my agnostic response.

    It’s not wishy washy at all because describing myself as agnostic is still not describing myself as a Christian, Muslim, etc. I’m simply agnostic and that’s a perfectly acceptable term to describe what we know.

    • C Peterson

      “Strong atheism” is basically an urban myth. And you are confusing agnosticism with skepticism. But the latter is a much better term, because it is much less likely to be misunderstood by a educated person.

      • NateW

        To me, “skeptic” sounds more wishy washy than “agnostic.” I may not be up on the current technical language, but as I understand, a skeptic is someone who is withholding judgment on the matter until further evidence can be considered, while an agnostic is someone who has taken the concrete position that whether God exists or not CANNOT be known. The skeptic may be actively weighing the evidence, but the agnostic understands that the concept of god, if true, is true on a level that transcends certainty and evidence.

        • C Peterson

          A skeptic is a person who requires evidence before accepting something as real or true, who bases his confidence on the quality of that truth upon the quality of evidence, and who is prepared to change his views if the evidence changes.

  • Michael Harrison

    By your own admission, you don’t get why people would adopt the word ‘agnostic.’ So, you ascribe to us the traits wishy-washy, on the fence, cowardly, insincere. From where I’m standing, this comes off as arrogant and ignorant. Just accept that we’re in that camp which is the weird cousin of atheism. Granted, we could do a better job of making it clear that we’re just as skeptical, that we don’t intend to shift the Overton window to make atheists look crazy (and since, as has been pointed out, agnosticism is not a mere region of the atheist spectrum, the concept shouldn’t even be applicable). After all, the point all along is that the theists aren’t meeting their burden of proof. Right now, we’re quibbling over the exact words to use to point that out.

  • Heathen Mike

    Hemant, you were absolutely right that this is a touchy subject, so you could count on this topic to get a heated exchange going. Your proposition, though, seems overly simple to me, because you spoke of the “generally accepted definition” of agnostic, and I don’t agree with it. The “truth” (there’s a dangerous and slippery word) is that there are several “generally accepted” definitions each of “agnostic” and of “atheist,” and no one should be arrogant enough to presume the right to declare that their favorite is the “correct” one. It would be really nice if we could all get on the same page with terminology, but that is not how language works. You can’t dictate. It’s the natural result of that “living language” process at work.

    I’m one of those “dishonest” “cowards” that c. Peterson keeps referring to, here, because I use the label “agnostic” for myself more often than “atheist.” (I only pick Peterson out because the responses are the most vehement.) And I’m not really principled about it either. It’s actually for pragmatic considerations that I do it. Where I live, the great majority of people I talk to, when they occasionally hear the term “atheist” their reaction tends to indicate an automatic distrust and defensiveness, suggesting the commonly understood connotation here of “atheist” is not just of a person who does not believe in god, but one who disrespects those who do and thinks them stupid. If I want to have any hope of people giving me the chance of an open dialogue on the subject of deity or no deity, I don’t want to use a label that for many people in my neck of the woods seems to slam the door on the chance for that dialogue. In spaces like this blog, I’m happy to be considered an atheist, because I know the understanding of that term is different. Its not cowardice; its pragmatism. I admit at the same time, a label alone doesn’t begin to clarify what I actually believe, so I’m always paying attention for appropriate opportunities to explain what I mean, as well. And honestly, I usually call myself a “skeptical agnostic”, which just opens the door for immediate follow-up explanation.

    Really, Hemant’s initial video post here suggests that the whole topic really is in service of a cause, and that cause is of a movement he would like to see squarely under the banner of “Atheist.” There is nothing wrong with that, accept you can’t be dictatorial with the language people use. You can try to encourage the wider adoption of “atheist,” which is fine by me, but until the practical pitfalls of its day-to-day use are actually repaired, I and countless others reserve the right to use whichever label we in our personal judgment think best fits our circumstance. And no amount of name-calling–c. Peterson–will change that.

    Check out the link below.

    http://atheism.wikia.com/wiki/Atheist_vs_Agnostic

    At the end of the day, neither “atheists” nor “agnostics” nor those of us who brazenly use whichever we feel like at the moment,..none of us, I presume, believes in sky faeries or an eternal lake of fire that somehow fails to totally consume its captives. …and that’s a good thing. : )

  • Richard Carl Askins

    Garbage! I am a strong agnostic. Looked at from one perspective, both theists and atheists are extremists … and I have personally met both fundy religionists and fundy atheists, and at times I don’t know which is worse!! I have also talked to reasonable and reasonably moral theists and atheists. Now, that being said, the dogma of any ‘religion’ (specifically the major tradition ones) comes mainly from a distant past when morals and theoretical ethical systems were not nearly as advanced as today. Those that cling too much to the dogmas of traditional religions are a sorry and/or pitiable lot. They are normally either mentally unhealthy in some way, sadly uneducated, were subject to poor or nonexistent parenting when they were children, etc. On the other hand, atheists that propound their absolute, unwavering, public certainty that a God (as yet poorly defined) cannot exist, are often, nothing more than egoists, sometimes of the worst sort. Riddle me this, how would any finite human being be able to recognize, with certitude, the existence (or non-existence) of an “infinite” entity — one of few attributes that most are willing to concede would belong to a “God’” Now, my life’s experience. intellectual curiosity and pondering, and exploration of the universe to the necessarily small amount any individual human can do in person of our own planet (let alone essentially second hand observation of the vast universe) strongly tells me the odds of any recognizable Godhead existing is no better than a million to one against, and probably smaller. I label myself a theoretical agnostic and a practical atheist. So do those odds justify feeling morally superior, i.e. a atheist feeling better than, morally superior to a theist or an agnostic, or a theist feeling (and sometimes stating to your face) that we, as atheists or agnostics will be going to Hell? I don’t think so. Even the opening of my comments is not necessarily the most moral, but I did want to get folk’s attention on this issue before us agnostics — theoretical or otherwise, and yes some are deists — became labelled as something ‘lesser.’ My last point is that those of us privileged enough to be atheists or agnostics — whether you worked hard to come to that conclusion, or it came to you naturally in childhood — show wisdom when we try to uplift those religionists who may be amenable to change to become freethinkers. It helps the cause of humanity, it seems to me. And of course we must defend ourselves from the legislation onslaught of fundy religionists as necessary. Be well. Richard C.

    • The Other Weirdo

      But the important thing is that you found a way to feel superior to both. http://xkcd.com/774/

      • Heathen Mike

        Aah, but honestly, don’t we all feel, in the words of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady,” feel “just a little bit superior” when we “know” our opinion to be right? So don’t pick on Richard too much. What you really seem to suggest he expressed forcefully an opinion you differ with; therefore “he’s” arrogant. hmm…

        • The Other Weirdo

          One reply to one post is now considered picking, but one step removed from bullying? Wow, I thought only religious people were that thin-skinned.

          • Heathen Mike

            Perhapse I was presuming too much. If so, sorry.

      • Richard Carl Askins

        Thanks. I love the comic. :) Hmmm ….. I just got tired of being called “the spawn of Satan” by the religious extremists on one side, and “wishy-washy”, or “intellectual dishonest”, etc by the extreme, supposedly know-it-all atheists on the other. I definitely prefer calm and reasoned relations with any human being of any philo-religious type, but eventually decided I would no longer be a passive target to be run over. So I stand by:

        Riddle me this, how would any finite human being be able to recognize, with certitude, the existence (or non-existence) of an “infinite” entity — one of few attributes that most are willing to concede would belong to a “God.” ;) :)

        • The Other Weirdo

          I have no idea what you’re talking about. What has that to do with anything? I, personally, have never claimed that there no possibility ever in a thousand million billion trillion millenia that there is no possible being out there we could potentially and with a huge grain of salt consider a God. It’s not my argument at all.

          • Richard Carl Askins

            Hmmm ….. Sorry, now I have no idea what you were talking about. (scratching head) What was your point in replying to my original message? I don’t really need to “feel superior” to either theists (there is a God) or atheists (there is no God). I took it as an amusing comic. What was your point (and/or feeling(s) ) in replying to me with it?

            I do think the argument I presented (“the riddle”), the logical reasoning for being an agnostic is simpler and sounder than any “logical” reasoning for being a theist or an atheist that I have ever come across so far in my life.

            • The Other Weirdo

              Atheism doesn’t necessarily say there is absolutely no possibility of any god out there ever possibly existing. Atheism, or more precisely, agnostic atheism, simply looks at the evidence presented for the various gods we’ve been told about and finds said evidence wanting. Saying “there is no god” is a shortcut way of telling theists “I don’t believe in the same gods you don’t plus one.”

              That you talk about fundiie theists vs fundy atheists tells me that you don’t what you are talking about. You are letting your supposed agnosticism lead to feeling superior to both strawmen.

              • Richard Carl Askins

                Decent try. But, nyet. I know what I’m talking about! I believe you are part of the problem I was illustrating in my first post.

                Just can’t leave well enough alone, eh? You don’t seem to be able to read between the lines, or be subtle, little weighing the full spectrum of the argument, either intellectually or emotionally. You appear to over think things — as a Princeton and M.I.T. grad, I’ve seen this before — the simplest concept that covers all possibilities is very often the best definition/theory.

                I don’t need 3 or 6 or 12 or more subcategories of “Atheist” to make sure I encompass all possibilities of non-theistic thought, so that it can be claimed (by some fundy atheists – and not all atheists are fundy by any means) that all non-theists are really, actually in the Atheist camp.

                All I need definitionally are the labels: theist, agnostic and atheist,

                While I freely admit there are variations below these 3 major categories, I see no need to burden the average conversation (or debate) with multi-word, multi-syllabic nouns to define every last type and nuance of sub-belief. That feels and _is_ on most occasions too much like the fundy religionists arguing over how many angels can fit on top of a pin. Anyway, I’ve always favored Occam’s Razor whenever possible.

                “Atheism doesn’t necessarily say there is absolutely no possibility of any god out there ever possibly existing.”

                Then I suggest you talk with the rest of your fellow Atheists, quite a few of whom believe it means _exactly_ that. I don’t have that problem when I claim being an agnostic (I have a few other problems (chuckle) – but not that one.) — one of the other problems being trouble with folks who think being an agnostic is “lesser.”

                “That you talk about fundiie theists vs fundy atheists tells me that you don’t what you are talking about. You are letting your supposed agnosticism lead to feeling superior to both strawmen.”

                Please, you are serious? You’ve never met a fundy religious person? If not, you must lead a cloistered life. As to a fundy atheist, I feel I’m talking to one right now.

                I just wonder how fundy? Will you feel compelled to reply to this post (e.g. telling me which sub-branch of Atheism I fall into?) – instead of being introspective and really attempting to understand what I said in my first post – and in this one? I wonder.

                Strawmen? (big chuckle) Both fundy types of folks live and breathe in the real world – admittedly many more of the theistic than non-theistic type. If you haven’t met them or considered their actually living existence, oh well.

                “Saying “there is no god” …”

                True. And it is inaccurate on precisely the most contentious issue, i.e. whether their much beloved and/or needed God can exist. So exactly who needs to feel superior, a fundy atheist or a theoretical agnostic (and practical atheist) like myself?

                ” ….is a shortcut way of telling theists “I don’t believe in the same gods you don’t plus one.” ”

                True, a shortcut, many of them don’t get. Still, I like the second concept better as it is at least trying to understand the mindset of the theist. On average I can get a better hearing from a sincere theist than many an atheist, especially if they tend to the fundy end of the spectrum.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  I have no interest in telling you what you are or what you are not. That seems to be your thing. Nor do I intend to argue what you feel. Did I sprain your brain by not behaving in the way you were expecting?

                  There are billions of people out there. They all use the same words, but they don’t use them the same way, especially those words which are laden with subjective meaning. You seem to want to pigeonhole me to a definition you are comfortable with. That’s your problem, and I don’t have to play along.

                  Additionally, I have no interest in cosseting people’s fragile little faiths. If they choose to take something on faith because a preacher thumping a copy of a 2,000 year old book said so, that’s on them. That they then demand I show deference to their beliefs and should really just shut the fuck up because learning an atheist might actually exist among them could shatter their preciously little children’s minds is quite beyond the pale.

                • Richard Carl Askins

                  “I have no interest in telling you what you are or what you are not.”

                  Really then why the first two replies in the first place? Seems you made quite a lot of assumptions about who I was, what I felt and what I believed and why what I believed was “lesser.” So where is the “sprain” in your neural net that you needed to respond to my original message in such a continually insulting manner?

                  Yes, you certainly don’t have to play along. I’m sorry if my usage of the term “fundy atheist” triggered you in some way — still, I won’t stop using the concept, so it might be hard for some atheists to converse with me (oh well).

                  I’m just looking for, at least, equality in a message thread about a written column concerning (paraphrasing) ‘all that’s wrong and lesser about being or claiming to be an agnostic.’

                  “Additionally, I have no interest in cosseting people’s fragile little faiths. ….”

                  I do not suggest/demand that you show deference to religionists’ faiths — that would be insulting from a few perspectives. I do not defer to them either (at least as best as I perceive what that personally means).

                  However, I would like to engage and somewhat change, or minimally attempt to change the minds of the more moderate religionists who may be reachable. Like you, I, and many others I know, have suffered too much at their hands — in many cases, simply because they are in the majority, or because they’re not thoughtful, or because they were a parent, etc. I work, in part, towards the long-term end of enlightening the slower evolution of some/many of my fellow humans, the best I can see it and the best I am able.

                  I do understand the extra oomph that comes from saying “I’m an atheist” rather than “I’m an agnostic.” Although, even saying the latter still gets quite a few theists angry, proselytizing, or concerned about “my soul.” (chuckle)

                  I was raised as a theist, was leather belted repeatedly for questioning the dogma, declared (without really knowing more than it was “not god”) I was an atheist around age 13, stayed an atheist for several decades, and became an agnostic when I finally realized that it strongly seemed to comport better with my high regard for free thought, science and the scientific method. I wish you well.

                • The Other Weirdo

                  I work, in part, towards the long-term end of enlightening the slower evolution of some/many of my fellow humans, the best I can see it and the best I am able.

                  You know what? I’m done. There is simply no talking with a man who accuses me of being insulting when I say he’s feeling superior to both theists and atheists, and then proceeds to claim he is more evolved than others.

                  P.S. I blockquoted that sentence just so you can’t go back and remove it from your post. Some less-evolved people are wont to do that.

                • Richard Carl Askins

                  Both happy and sad to see you are done.

                  Nevertheless, if you think I’m going to remove _anything_ from this sub-thread, then you obviously don’t know me (although you appear fairly sure you do).

                  “You know what? I’m done. There is simply no talking with a man who accuses me of being insulting when I say he’s feeling superior to both theists and atheists, and then proceeds to claim he is more evolved than others.”

                  Not even close to a valid point. I personally know a few (a very few) theists and agnostics/atheists (more of these) that are more evolved than me. All I asked/demanded on this thread was to interject an opposing point of view into this group, happy hour of why agnostics were being considered “lesser.”

                  I stand by what I’ve said, in total, until/unless someone can prove me significantly/importantly wrong in what I’ve posted (or the logic contained therein), or convince me that I’ve treated you particularly worse than you have me. (And not in thesis form, if there are any zealot friends of T.O.W out there — something relatively short, insightful and pithy, please.)

                  If you choose to reconsider the “I’m done,” please “block quote” all the above — or any of the above, if that better serves your cherry-picking purposes. (shrug)

                  I see it didn’t even matter (or maybe register) that with all our “intense debate,” I wished you well at the end of my last message.

                  P.S. The part you block quoted in your final message was in no way meant to reference you, and I hope you didn’t take it that way. I still wish you well now.

  • Brian

    Gnosticism = Knowledge
    Theism = Belief

    You can be either an Agnostic Atheist, a Gnostic Atheist, an Agnostic Theist or a Gnostic Theist. Simply saying you are “Agnostic” is only half of an answer.

    • Kodie

      When someone says they are agnostic, it means they don’t know what to believe. They may simultaneously disbelieve some number of things they are certain* aren’t true but leaving them with a variety of things that could still be true.

      *Certainty does not guarantee correctness.

  • ant-eye-christ

    My personal opinion about Hemant’s video & agnosticism:
    I borrow from many different systems of belief. For example, socially & politically I lean toward the atheist side. spiritually i lean toward the pagan side. theologically, i think there isn’t, & never will be, 100% proof for the existence or non-existence of a god. that is where I can side with the agnostics. but i think there is some misconception about what that means. To my knowledge there is no part in the definition of ‘agnosticism’ that states what that person would do if presented with irrefutable truth of a god. In other words, it is assumed the agnostic would worship god if god were real. This leads to the generalization & association of agnosticism with christianity. I feel agnosticism is much more closely related to atheism. most atheists don’t claim to know for a fact that god does not exist. Only, the evidence strongly suggest against the possibility of a god. Isn’t that only a half-step away from the saying the evidence strongly suggest against the possibility of a god, but i can’t say for sure because i don’t know that i have all the evidence?

    • Heathen Mike

      Interesting. Here’s one thing I like about an agnostic approach to theological questions. A zealous deist may rail against a professing atheist by saying “you can’t absolutely prove the non-existence of god, and if you’re wrong, you will have hell to pay!” Despite the obvious ridiculousness of that, one can side-step the whole pressure about trying to prove a negative by saying something like:

      “Look, if god exists, and if, as is central to Christian theology, god is supposed to represent endless love, omniscience, and boundless power, then there is no fucking way such a being would create billions of human ‘children,’ with our limited capacities for understanding and our wealth of flaws, only to punish us with eternal torment simply for making mistakes that we were created (by said god) to be unable to avoid. Such a deity would be sadistic indeed, automatically contradicting the very principle of LOVE that god is supposed to embody. It’s an impossibility.

      “If I doubt, not out of rebellion against this god I don’t even believe in, but rather because I have sincerely searched and questioned and tried my best to comprehend my life and the world around me and have found that all the teachings about god I’ve been exposed to don’t make sense to me, a loving god would understand and forgive that. If you respect ‘creation’ and strive to care for your fellow-human beings, you are fulfilling the core of what Jesus’ teachings ask of you. If god is really god, then ‘he’ is big enough not to need my puny human belief to keep on being god. Let’s focus on striving to be good people, and stop wasting our energy looking over our shoulders in fear of cosmic punishment for being humans. Stop treating ‘god’ like some kind of psychotic abuser bent on tricking us into mistakes we’ll be eternally punished for. You’re wasting your energy. just strive to be a good person and let god handle the question of ‘his’ existence.”

      Oh, and additionally, “disregard those loudmouths professing to speak on behalf of god. You can be sure they are motivated by selfish ulterior motives.”

      Most devout Christians’ biggest fear, I suspect, is condemnation by god to hell. If you come at them with the battering ram of atheist logic, no matter how clearly you construct your case against the existence of god, such an argument will not overcome most devout Christians’ NEED to believe. You have to first help them realize they have permission to doubt. I think an agnostic approach to that task has more hope of success than a frontal assault. Help them find a safe space to identify as agnostic, and it will ultimately lead to atheist explanations sounding perfectly reasonable to them, sooner or later.

  • baal

    I am also agnostic about the famous Bolivian invisible flying pink unicorn flock.

  • Elddim Eman

    Why should an atheist care what an “agnostic” calls himself or herself? Why can’t people just self-identify any way they please? You know that someone who primarily self-identifies as agnostic is someone unwilling to claim the mantle of any traditional religion. Otherwise, he or she would primarily identify as Jewish, Christian, etc. Just live and let live, for crying out loud.

    Having called my self agnostic in the past, and having been verbally attacked by atheists on more than one occasion for doing so, posts like this one just make me want to double-down on calling myself an agnostic. So do several comments here, like agnostics are “dishonest atheists.” I normally feel quite sympathetic to Hemant’s posts here on Friendly Atheist, but this one bugs me.

    And if atheists and agnostics are on different scales, one measuring belief and the other measuring knowledge, what is the issue?

  • Wayne D

    Hi Hemant, I am one of those agnostics and I find it always a lame argument by atheists that you can’t prove a unicorn, therefore that makes it silly to say that a god is possible. The difference should be obvious. A unicorn is a mythological creature, but when you reason a god is necessary, you are basing it on the fact that matter came from nothing and then expanded into a finally tuned universe required for life since something like gravity constant has to be so finally tuned or no life at all could exist. Krauss argues that, based on quantum mechanics, “nothing” is unstable and explains how matter could appear from nothing, and that this could happen many times with numerous universes being created that one of them could have all the finely tuned parameters. One problem, the evidence for quantum mechanics is within our universe, and we are talking about before our universe was formed. There is no way we can assume that quantum mechanics would be the rule in that situation. Therefore, based on matter coming from nothing and expanding into a universe with finally tuned parameters necessary for life, I submit to you that a god creator may have been a necessity. And BTW that does not make me a theist since I admit that it can’t be proven, only reasoned. But, the same is true for Krauss’ hypothesis. And also, it doesn’t make me an atheists since an atheists says there is no god. I say, though I lean towards a creator, I don’t have the proof, so I must admit that I don’t know. That makes me an agnostic.

  • Wayne D

    OOPs, I meant finely tuned, not finally tuned. Being spastic, I suppose. :-)

  • Wayne D

    Hi Hermant, I am one of those agnostics and I find it always a lame argument by atheists that you can’t prove a unicorn, therefore that makes it silly to say that a god is possible. The difference should be obvious. A unicorn is a mythological creature, but when you reason a god is necessary, you are basing it on the fact that matter came from nothing and then expanded into a finely tuned universe required for life to exist since a parameter like the gravity constant must be so finely tuned or no life at could exist. Krauss argues that, based on quantum mechanics, “nothing” is unstable and explains how matter could appear from nothing, and that this could happen many times with numerous universes being created that one of them could have all the required finely tuned parameters for life. One problem, the evidence for quantum mechanics is within out universe, and we are talking about before our universe was formed. There i no way we can assume that quantum mechanics could be the rule in that situation. Therefore, based on matter coming from nothing and expanding into a universe with finely tuned parameters necessary for life, I submit to you that a god may have been a necessity. And BTW, that does not make ma a theist since I admit that it can’t be proven, only reasoned. But, the same is true for Krauss’ hypothesis. And also, it doesn’t make me an atheists since an atheist says there is no god. I say, though Iean towards a creator, I don’t have the proof, so I must admit that I don’t know. That makes me an agnostic.

    • Dave

      And a moron.

  • Lionel

    Why can’t atheists just “live and let live”? Why do they care that others call themselves agnostics?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X