Down with Agnosticism

Dear Bleaders,

I’m against Agnosticism. I think it is hooey. Ancient Skepticism made the beautiful point that we are such imperfect sensing and thinking beings that we cannot really know anything; that everything true has an opposite that can also be argued; that true contradictions can be shown; and that irrational states of mind teach us that all states of mind are somewhat irrational– it’s always only one version of the truth. (This critique is true and solid. Science gets around it by dealing with what seems true to humans, just like common sense does. But it is still a beautiful truth.)
But Agnosticism isn’t pretty like that. Agnositicsm points this excellent truth about all epistomology, at one single target, the supernatural invention of one particular hairless ape, at one particular moment in its culture. We don’t know if Zeus exists? Uh, yeah we do. He doesn’t.
I have to give the Jewish Christian Muslim Father God the same respect I give Superman. Does this character exist? Um. No. I know when Superman was made up. Because I’m a historian, I know when God was made up too.
This thing about ‘I can’t prove there’s no God’ is not persuasive. Either you espouse true and full Skepticism, which is a robust philosophical position denying all knowledge, or you embrace Rationalism in which you are free to decipher the world based on evidence, evaluation of bias, vigilant sniffing against desire-driven delusions. True Skeptics cannot know anything, can barely trust the ground beneath our feet.
Rationalists do not need some special holding pen called “maybe despite all common sense” for every last un-evidenced thing someone reports. Rationalism bases conclusions on evidence, examines opposing proposals, tries to acquire a big perspective, and then takes a step toward knowledge. “I doubt, therefore I am,” is the first step, you don’t get to leap all the way to nonsense from there, but you do get to walk towards knowledge and take careful steps. The proposal that we can speak plainly about the existence of fairies and vampires but not God is absurd. There is no call to prove a negative. In rationalism you can dismiss a claim if there is no evidence for it, especially if it seems to be a very historically-specific claim, located in a particular culture, argued by people who admit they are frightened by the opposing conclusion, and no one can even agree on the claimed item’s attributes anyway.
The fact that life feels weird to humans proves exactly and only that life feels weird to humans. There is no reason to dismiss that weirdness (indeed I devote my life to the weirdness), but there is no reason to take it as evidence of something else, some tertiary being or force, called in to hold the weirdness and give it more meaning.
The notion of Agnosticism has no intellectual pedigree. Huxley made it up a hundred years ago, stating plainly that he was taking the idea from Catholic Fideism which was itself a crazy (I’d say mis)use of Ancient Skepticism to fight Protestantism, holding that since we cannot know anything, even whether God exists, let us choose to believe not only that he does, but that so must the Pope.
It is time we stopped using the term agnostic. If people want to retain it with the meaning “I personally have not yet made up my mind” that seems okay, but we have to stop parroting the notion that you “can’t prove a negative,” so you can’t be an atheist. It is not so. The argument is historical, not rational, indeed, not philosophically tenable.
What is more, I cannot say there are no unicorns because it is at least possible to have a horse with a horn or a one horned goat that happens to look like a horse, but I can say that a Pegasus does not exist because you would need wings the size of a football field to lift a horse. God is defined in negative theology as a being so unknowable to us that he “doesn’t exist” and when theologians become as subtle as this we know we are at least in interesting company, but if I go with all powerful, all good, and all knowing, and also ruler of a world like ours, with the cruelty, betrayal, torture, and heartache we have seen around here, well, that’s more of a Pegasus than a unicorn and it is reasonable to say, that Pegasus there, that does not exist.
Anyway that’s what I think. What do you think?
Love,
Jennifer

About Amy Lepine Peterson

Amy Lepine Peterson teaches ESL Writing and American Pop Culture at Taylor University, but spends most of her time making a home in the cornfields for her best-friend-husband and two (frankly adorable) children. Look for her with a french press of coffee and a book or a screen, plus a little one on her lap, thinking about education, mothering, theology, tv, movies, music, and sustainable habits of living.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01274946896361727077 Jon Dreyer

    You are so right! (Or at least so it seems to my fallible brain which is no more than a quivering mass of gray goop…or maybe it isn't…)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18014013543336380474 Andy Breeden

    I think you make a compelling argument, Jennifer. It's time to stop being so damn over-accommodating.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03242221594991245421 Bruce Gerencser

    Are you certain that no deity of any kind exists? How did you come to this certainty of yours? I am an atheist but I recognize that I can not be certain on the god question. I can look at the available evidence and come to a conclusion, but unless I have absolute knowledge I can not say absolutely there is no god. It is about probabilities. Is it probable a god exists? Based on the current evidence the answer is no. However, we do not know what evidence and knowledge we may gain in the future.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01129798215861959184 TheDudeDiogenes

    @Bruce, I think your questions are exactly what this post is meant to address. If one is a rationalist, as defined in this post, then one can have knowledge that there is no god – knowledge that is as certain as any scientific or historical knowledge can be.

    If one isn't a rationalist, then one is, as defined by this post, an Ancient Skeptic, in which case your questions are irrelevant since no one has knowledge of any kind.

    Of course, one could dispute Jennifer's dichotomy of rationalist and Ancient Skeptic, but having studied philosophy and theology, as well as read her books, I think it's an apt dichotomy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03242221594991245421 Bruce Gerencser

    Well I am certainly a rationalist. :). My concern is when people speak in absolute terms. Every so often a fire-breathing atheist will stop by my blog and flail me for not being atheist enough. Their certainty reminds me if what I saw in Christian fundamentalism over the course of 25 years as a pastor.

    Now if agnosticism is being used as an excuse for lazy thinking then I too object. However, when I say I am agnostic when it comes to a god all I am saying is that I lack absolute certainty on the matter. Practically, I live my life as an atheist. The available evidence tells me there is no god andI live and think accordingly.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17801369779625472334 Pete Hoge

    I like your writing but I think you don't account for people like me who have cognitive issues and have a hard time telling the truth about stuff. I am agnostic about everything, not just supernatural claims, because the world is confusing. If reality is a book then I have dyslexia.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Bruce: "Certainty" is a condition *stronger* than having "knowledge," which is stronger than having "justified belief," which is perhaps stronger than having "reasonable belief."

    All that JMH defended, assuming I understood correctly, is that it is reasonable to assert "there is no God"–she didn't climb up that epistemic ladder to certainty.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Jennifer — Not all hypothetical supernatural beings have equal epistemic status. And agnostic philosopher of religion Paul Draper, who is the most open-minded philosopher of religion I have ever met, has provided a very compelling defense of his version of agnosticism, what Ted Drange calls "data-vs.-data agnosticism." In short, I don't think your argument applies to data-vs.-data agnostics like Draper.

    For details, interested readers should read his essay, "Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic," in Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser, Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13070133968445725989 jfobes

    Thought I already left this on facebook, this seems to be an entirely different comment thread, so I will add it here also:

    Maybe this is the issue: You're asking unbelievers to believe something — your definition of proper unbelief. There's also this angle: can someone be an authority on unbelief? I am not saying that's what you're trying to do but maybe sort of. But perhaps most important to remember: Glad you wrote what you did because it's fun and interesting to ponder and discuss things!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17189700341267697945 JMH

    Jeffery

    Well I took a look at the Draper and have to say it holds no special status.

    Agnosticism is a term that is philosophical, psychological (and or neurological), and historical, and current-common-usage. It was born in history to mean what all and any human being can know about a particular proposition, the Jewish et al. character God.

    God is a historical concept as is agnosticism. The sense and reality of both must be adjudicated with the use of analysis from historical methodology, as well as psychological, and common-usage-common-sense meanings and methods.

    Within such a framework the idea of God falls to "not real" by several blades. We know when it was made up, we know that its defenders admit being emotionally desperate for its conditions, we know that there is no single definition of the Character in question, we know that the most common definitions are riddled with self-contradiction (all good all powerful all knowing in an evil world), and we can reason that the concept, if true, would still not solve the problem of how good humanity could turn out to be such sadistic monsters some of the time.

  • http://thonyc.wordpress.com/ thonyc

    JMH wrote:

    Because I'm a historian, I know when God was made up too.

    Really and when exactly was that? Just curious.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17189700341267697945 JMH

    In my 4th graph above I only left philosophy out of its place at the front of this list because I am responding to a proposition that was All philosophy, and I am pointing out that though her methodology and conclusions should take lead on the analysis, it is not sufficient alone. Philosophically the case for any proposition may never reach 100% such that we are always left in a knot, not knowing. But when you take one particular proposition and it is profoundly cultural and time-and-place based, and you bring to bear your analysis as a historian, psychologist, and sociologist, you can get to what we call knowing.

    I know what I know about Superman and Stalin and I have lots of ways of knowing that one was invented and the other born. There are other hard questions in the world, questions like whether ol' Stalin was innately predisposed to murder millions or if circumstance and (lack of) nurture tortured him into doing it, that is, was he born that way or borne that way? Now I have an opinion about that too, a strong one (I lean heavily to the borne), but this is something I hold despite having to acknowledge very good arguments and sometimes great looking evidence to the contrary. My sense of the Agnosticism question is more certain: As it stands in our culture, as a category for the belief that "you can't prove a negative so maybe God exists," is highly misleading and all sorts of wrong. And very counterproductive.

    For our friendlier position (not that friendliness is all that Agnosticism is about, but it is part of it.) better we should acknowledge that the universe is creepy-awesome from humanity's perspective and say that this realization makes us have a lot in common with the least fabulist of religionists who are also just grooving on the awe-freak of it all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17189700341267697945 JMH

    thonyc

    Would you like a date for the first recorded talk of life after death? Or for the notion of a being called "God" and defined as universal, ie who is more than just one little group's temple god? Or would you like a date for the first evidence of belief in a universal character called God who could become flesh?

    All these dates are easy to find in my book Doubt: A History. Which I wrote so I wouldn't have to keep typing them out.

  • http://thonyc.wordpress.com/ thonyc

    None of the supposed dates you don't give, instead referencing your book, fulfill your claim to knowing the date when god was made up. You are in fact claiming substantially more than you can deliver.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17189700341267697945 JMH

    "supposed dates" seems to imply you don't believe in history, or even, say, the comparative history of religions, in which discipline these dates are evident.

    But if you are indeed curious, I'd say we can date the notion of a universal all-knowing deity who has some sort of afterlife powers with some accuracy, but for here let's just generalize for brevity and nail, rather than pinpoint, the date of God to the Hellenistic era, a period often thought of as the decline of Ancient Greece and the Rise of Ancient Rome, the goings on of which squeezed and released Ancient Judea with just the right rhythm and out of the three great civilizations this God idea was smelted and refined until such time as it lands like a flopping fish in Augustine's lap. And we all know how he kills it before he can choke it down. But that is another story.

    So yeah, God, having attributes including universality and afterlifing, is invented by humans in the third and second century BC and includes the notion of good and evil (from Zoroastrianism) and individual human resurrection in the first century AD.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05371279514024960026 Ron Krumpos

    I love negative theology…for me divine is a superlative adjective for that which has no noun.

    Scriptures, theologians and many religious leaders tell us what the divine is by listing grandiose attributes. Most mystics worship personal aspects of the divine, but they also speak of what it is not. Many of them said that the divine essence is nothing, i.e. no thing, that it is immanent in all things, yet it is transcendent to everything. Mystics consider this seeming paradox to be a positive negation.

    Avidya, non-knowledge in Sanskrit, is used in Buddhism for our “spiritual ignorance” of the true nature of Reality. Bila kaif, without knowing how in Arabic, is Islam’s term for “without comparison” to describe Allah. Ein Sof, without end in Hebrew, is the “infinite beyond description” in the Kabbalah. Neti, neti, not this, not this in Sanskrit, refers to “unreality of appearances” to define Brahman. In via negativa, the way of negation in Latin, God is “not open to observation or description.”

    Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.

    (quoted from my free ebook, "the greatest achievement in life," on comparative mysticism)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17189700341267697945 JMH

    Thanks for all these comments, I'm continuing to think about them … and I hear ya Pete this dang world don't make steady sense.

    Very interesting all around. Thanks for all comments and suggestions. All your notes, even those I may seem to dismiss, have got me thinking in various realms, so please accept my gratitude for your contributions.

    xj

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13808602864907013551 thislove

    It is a well-established fact of history that Jesus died by crucifixion in the early 30s. Some argue that there are indications that Jesus did not die. These typically include two factors: that there was not enough time for JEsus to die, or the drink he received on the cross was a drug that simulated death. There was sufficient time for Jesus to die on the cross. We must not view the crucifixion in isolation from what preceded it. Jesus was so weakened from his beatings that he was unable to carry his cross all the way to Golgotha, the execution site. Jesus' brutal treatment before the crucifixion, he would have gone into hypovolemic shock due to extreme blood loss. This involves a racing heart attempting to pump missing blood, severe blood-pressure drop, kidney malfunction and extreme thirst. Jesus was already in serious to critical conniption even before the nails were driven through his hands and feet. The Romans were no beginners when it came to crucifixion. The squad of four soldiers broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus but did not bother to break Jesus' legs because they knew he had already expired.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16974261499331664829 Artificial Selection

    Interesting article. I feel much the same way as you do on this topic, JMH. However, it seems that you may be running into an issue of competition between (1) the historical origins of the word "agnosticism", (2) the current usage of the word by most people who self identify as agnostics and who are skeptical/rationalist/etc., and (3) the current usage of the word by those who would not self-identify as agnostics.

    The historical origins, as JMH points out, level the term directly at one and only one proposition: the God of the Abrahamic religions. The current usage by self-described agnostics who are also skeptics/rationalists/etc. is usually broadened far beyond its historical range, however, and is used to mean something like, "I accept that my knowledge is incomplete and am open to future evidence that may alter my conclusions." And lastly, the current usage of the term by those who are not self-identified agnostics, and most especially the theistic "opponents" against which many of the skeptics and rationalists in the previous group argue, often is taken to mean "unsure to the point that they should STFU."

    I don't think this is a mistake on JMH's part, just that the competing usages of the term will make the argument she is trying to make more difficult, because there will be components of her intended audience who will excuse themselves from her appeal because they will think it doesn't apply to them based on what they perceive to be a difference in the usage of the term.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16974261499331664829 Artificial Selection

    I make no bones about my atheism anymore, though I once did hide behind the term "agnostic" just to seem more friendly to theists. I now think of myself as both an agnostic and an atheist, but I am aware that I'm using both terms in a very specific sense and one that many people I speak with may not share. This means that I run the very real risk of not communicating clearly. For this reason, I tend to insist on first defining at length exactly what the terms will mean at the start of any conversation involving them. I'll be the first to admit that this makes for rather boring conversations sometime.

    I was recently struck by something that Bill Nye (the Science Guy) said on a recent podcast interview. He was speaking in a different context about how scientists should stop being so darn agnostic (my usage) about some propositions. His specific example was about anthropogenic global warming. He was trying to point out that, while scientists are trained to always acknowledge the fact that we don't have all the answers, that there are error bars on estimates, and that further evidence could change our conclusions, that the public did not understand this nor did it take from such admissions any sense of trust in the scientists' pronouncements. Rather, after hearing a scientist rattle on about the uncertainty (as any good scientist should), the public took away that the scientists don't know what they're talking about. Nye was making the point that scientists should just up and be blunt about their conclusions … yes, yes … talk about the uncertainties and nuances at your conferences, but when Fox News puts a camera in your face and asks you in front of millions of viewers if something as well-established as evolution is a reality, you should simply say, "yes".

    Anyways, I wonder if there is some connection between Nye's points about scientists being more aware of how they communicate with the lay public and how Hecht is advocating the eschewing of a confusing term that more often than not ends up having both sides misunderstanding one another?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17801369779625472334 Pete Hoge

    @JMH: There ARE things that make sense. If I need to do something
    to take care of my body then I
    usually have no question about it.

    Eating, sleeping, toilet…etc.

    Also 1+1=2…and there are other
    mathematical statements which
    are equally as true.

    Other than that I am confused.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18325950914132322478 Stig K Martinsen

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18325950914132322478 Stig K Martinsen

    It's fine to say that agnosticism about the traditional Judeo-Christian God is an untenable position, but there's no reason to stop using the term in its strongest formulations, precisely the mentioned "data-data-agnosticism" and the honest admission that "I haven't made up my mind yet".

    When you look back on the many confident statements on metaphysical and scientific matters throughout history which seem laughable to us today, clearly people could benefit from some humility and acknowledge more often that on matters X, Y, and Z I personally (or even we, humanity) don't at present know enough to have a firm opinion either way.

    And of course the scientific/naturalistic mindset lends itself much better to accepting this uncertainty about the world. Part of the success of religion is because people are desperate to have a complete worldview, however arbitrary and culture-bound, to give them a false sense of coherence and understanding.

    Btw. about Drange's quote that Lowder linked to:

    "They could be called "knife-edge agnostics," since they view the positive evidence for God's existence as so perfectly balanced by negative evidence that it is as if they were balanced on the edge of a knife without falling to one side or the other."

    - Does it really have to be knife-edge, around 50/50 in someone's mind for them to be properly agnostic? I would think that atheism, for example, implies a much stronger belief than 51% that there are no gods. If atheism is a 0-10% chance of God's existence, theism is 90-100%, and agnosticism is 49-51%, then what do you call anyone who falls on other parts of the scale? I think "agnosticism" should cover a much wider range than just the "knife-edge", which makes it even more important to retain the term. (NB: I'm using percentages not to establish any kind of numerical precision, but merely to point out that there are other options besides great confidence in theism, great confidence in atheism and knife-edge agnosticism)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Stig — In the case of Paul Draper, who I consider to be one of the most important active philosophers of religion today, he doesn't claim that he considers the evidence to be perfectly balanced. Rather, he claims that there is evidence for and against God's existence, and he doesn't know how to weigh the evidence for God's existence with the evidence against God's existence. So he would seem to be a perfect example to support your point that there are other options besides great confidence in theism, great confidence in atheism, and knife-edge agnosticism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16974261499331664829 Artificial Selection

    Stig, I don't think the best way to think of agnosticism in the context of atheism and theism is the way you suggest. Agnosticism isn't some "middle ground" between the two positions. It's on a different spectrum entirely. Agnosticism is a statement about knowledge, while atheism/theism is a statement about belief. It is possible to be agnostic (in the sense we're current talking about) and be both theistic and atheistic.

    I think it's precisely that point that JMH might be on about, though. When an atheist says, "I'm an agnostic", they are potentially allowing a misunderstanding of their point in the mind of a listener who (like yourself) constructs its use in this single-spectrum manner. It also leads to someone who says, "I'm an atheist" incorrectly being assumed to be more certain than they may be, leading to tiresome requests like, "well if you're an atheist, then prove to me that god doesn't exist!"

    JMH can clarify, but I suspect that some of what she's after is a clear communication from atheists to stop mincing words and relying upon the pedantry that underlies their usage of "agnostic" to allow them the excuse of using this oft-misunderstood term with audiences whom they know will misinterpret it. In other words, just admit you're an atheist and, if someone asks how perfect your knowledge is, answer truthfully.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18325950914132322478 Stig K Martinsen

    Artificial Selection: If agnosticism refers to "what all and any human being can know about a particular proposition, the Jewish et al. character God.", as JMH wrote above, that is indeed a statement about knowledge (and about what is possible to know). But I think the common (or "folk") usage of the term is simpler, much like mine above: An agnostic is simply someone who either hasn't decided yet, or finds the evidence is sufficiently non-conclusive that they remain undecided. This doesn't have to imply any grand statements about what is possible for all and any humans to know. Agnostics in this sense have often thought quite deeply about the issues, they just reached a different conclusion than more convinced atheists. I think we should acknowledge that and accept them as allies in the fight against all kinds of fundamentalism and dogmatism, rather than throw around words like "hooey" or "pedantry".

    "Agnostic" in this folk sense of an intermediate/undecided position is obviously a useful category, while "agnostic" as a grand claim about possible knowledge is probably not. Ideally we should have had two different terms, to more easily condemn the latter! But this also means that the charitable interpretation of agnostic is the more modest one about personal knowledge/belief.

    For the record, I count myself as an atheist, but I think the argument from fine-tuning of the universe is quite a good one for theists. I personally find that the evidential problem of evil, the cultural specificity of all known gods and the fact of moral progress independent of divine law still suffice to make gods unlikely. But I respect that some people weigh this differently (or, like Draper, don't know how to weigh it).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16974261499331664829 Artificial Selection

    Stig, I think your comment addresses some of the same issues I raised in an earlier comment about the problems with competing meanings of the same word (agnostic) depending on who is using it and in what context they are speaking. I still think that it is precisely because of the oft-confused meaning of that word that atheists should stop using it as often as they do. Far be it for me to suggest someone who genuinely wants to self-identify as an agnostic from doing so. But, for the atheist who employs the term in one way, knowing that a theistic person to whom they are speaking will interpret it in a completely different way, I think they should reconsider. I know from personal experience that allowing theists to think I'm agnostic in the sense of they word they use leads to confusion about my stance. If the goal is clear communication, I think such clearly confusing terminology should be avoided … at least in situations in which we don't have the luxury of an audience that will patiently wait while we bang out extensive definitions of all of our terms. If the "folk" meaning of a term, as you put it, is different from the way I mean it, then it's my job to not use it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17189700341267697945 JMH

    In other words, just admit you're an atheist and, if someone asks how perfect your knowledge is, answer truthfully.

    I like this.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18325950914132322478 Stig K Martinsen

    "Just admit you're an atheist" works, but only if indeed you are an atheist and not an agnostic (in the "personally haven't decided" sense)…

    Artificial Selection, If it's OK for people to self-identify as agnostics, and there is a group of people out there who are undecided on the existence of god(s), atheists should reasonably use the label "agnostics" for them, too. Unless we invent and somehow popularize a new word, I don't see how we can get around the term, and we might just have to be careful to explain in which sense we mean it.

    So the point that remains is, an agnostic who leans toward atheism should just be bold enough to admit to atheism, because agnosticism will be perceived as weakness, confusion, etc. by theists. This is really a problem of public education in the typical fallacies of human reasoning; like preferring the more strongly held of opposing claims, regardless of which claim is more well-founded. PR-wise, you should appear confident, even more confident than you can truthfully be, to have the greatest chance of persuading others. But this world really needs more rationality, including more honesty about the limitations of our knowledge, not just more strategic overconfidence.

    Of course I don't have any easy answers to the question of how to combine persuasion with intellectual honesty, either.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Stig and Artificial Selection: I believe the more common use of "agnostic" (especially by those who self-identify as such) is in the sense of non-belief vs. disbelief, as being undecided between theism or atheism based on lack of adequate information or a balance of information. I think that's close to the sense in which T.H. Huxley coined it (though he really said agnosticism is a method under which you don't claim certainty without in the absence of proof, either positively or negatively), and it was indeed, as JMH notes, part of a PR move in which Huxley anonymously tried to promote use of the term (a failed one, as recounted in Bernard Lightman's "Huxley and Scientific Agnosticism: The Strange History of a Failed Rhetorical Strategy"). Henry Spencer shifted the meaning to God being "unknowable," which prompted Huxley to out himself as the coiner to try to correct Spencer's misuse. George H. Smith promotes Spencer's use in his _Atheism: The Case Against God_, though also gives Huxley's (pp. 8-13). Michael Martin's _Atheism: A Philosophical Justification_ (pp. 466-467) has a good explication of these and more senses of agnosticism.

    Similarly, I think the common use of the term "atheism" is to mean disbelief rather than nonbelief or lack of belief, though the idea of "negative atheism" or "implicit atheism" or "weak atheism" being mere lack of belief has proliferated on the Internet and has some of the attraction of agnosticism as a way of avoiding burden of proof arguments. I think there are some problems with this (also see Maverick Philosopher).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Just to piggy back off what Jim wrote, also see my post, "
    Disagreement Among Self-Described Atheists about the Meaning of 'Atheism.'
    "

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Jeff: Thanks for that link. Your 2006 post and Drange's 1998 article were well worth a read. I've added links to both at the bottom of my blog post on the topic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05371279514024960026 Ron Krumpos

    I was introduced to mysticism by a Nobel astrophysicist when we privately met at the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory in 1959. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was an atheist who once wrote "God is man's greatest invention." You do not have believe is God to be a mystic, i.e. live is conscious oneness with ultimate reality.

    Heisenberg, Schroedinger, de Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington were supporters of mysticism. A good reference is "Quantum Questions / Mystical Writings of the World's Greatest Physicists," edited by Ken Wilber (Shambhala 1984, 2001). Many religious people, and most who are nonreligious, say that mysticism is nonsense. It is non-sense: you cannot see, hear, smell, touch or taste mystical awareness. It transforms our sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on life.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18325950914132322478 Stig K Martinsen

    I second Jim Lippard; both posts were useful.

    I like Drange's solution to the two meanings of agnosticism: Use "Non-cognitivsm about God-talk" for the claims about knowledge, reserving "agnosticism" for intermediate positions between atheism and theism. While this terminology breaks with Huxley's historical usage, it is more consistent with common usage today.

    Thus I can unambiguously state that I'm a cognitivist about God-talk, an agnostic about some creative force behind the Universe, and an atheist about personal God(s).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13070133968445725989 jfobes

    Could all this confusion be cleared up by simply stating, "As far as belief goes, I DEEPLY and TRULY do not believe in any sort of deity whatsoever! But in regards what I actually KNOW to be the true state of affairs far removed from my own life or experience, how can I know what I DON'T know?"

    In other words, if we let our beliefs (which would seem hopelessly tied up with our feelings in many cases) become reality then we're just True Believers of another stripe.

    So it seems about the only safe thing to say on any metaphysical topic is, "These are my deep beliefs, but they may not correspond to the facts because how do I know what's beyond knowing?" Making that distinction makes all the difference. Or so it seems to me.

    So it's not a matter of "just admitting" you're an atheist, as if you're afraid of the term; it's a matter of not falling into a faith-based mindset. If you've ever met an atheist who's not that well read or deeply thoughtful but who "just knows" there is no god, then you know what I mean. It's not any great accomplishment to reach that stage! It's just a different way to be mindless. And you might end up wishing you were talking to a thoughtful believer rather than a dim atheist. I don't know if I am an agnostic, atheist, skeptic, doubter, unbeliever or just confused. If I could choose a designation, I fancy I would like to be an Emersonian, with this as my motto: "I must unfold my own thought." I can't say what's what until thought stops unfolding — and then I will be dead! I will go on experiencing and thinking over that experience until blackout time.

    Speaking of Emerson, he gets at the idea I am trying to express in this way (sorry for his sexist language): "The character of each man shall form his Imagination. The Beings of the Imagination shall become objects of unshaken faith, that is, to his mind, Realities.” To conclude, I simply try to let my deep beliefs exist AS beliefs, not as realities. I guess I am taking unbelief to the limits … at least as far as I can personally take it. If this disbars me from being an avowed atheist, so be it.

  • http://northernfrog.myopenid.com/ northernfrog

    Great points JMH. I've also often expressed my annoyance at the 'we can't know anything' crowd. In conversations I usually treat the discussion in this manner:
    On questions that are new, it is acceptable to not know, and to be confused by conflicting evidence. On questions that are centuries old, on which evidence is without conflict, on which all evidence is one-sided (against any supernatural beings or homeopathy), claiming ignorance is the least rational response.
    On old questions, agnostics make the mistake of confusing 'lack of evidence for one side' with 'conflicting evidence' and are either being intellectually dishonest or lazy. I find the latter less insulting.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05479935991883138999 M. A. Rodriguez

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