I had an associate who is a self-described philosopher, active in the atheist community. However, he likes to antagonize other unbelievers by saying that he’s never believed in any god but that he was was never atheist; he’s an agnostic. From here on, I will refer to him as Mr. Agnostic because he has made that his identity as well as the most unreasonable and annoying aspect of his character.
I and myriad others have repeatedly pointed out that dictionaries typically say that “atheist refers to someone who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods, and agnostic refers to someone who doesn’t know whether there is a god, or even if such a thing is knowable.”
Clearly then, “agnostic” answers a different question. Saying that you don’t know whether any god exists doesn’t tell me whether or not you believe there is one. I’ve heard a few people say that “well, I believe there’s something“, implying that it might be a god.
Theism is a religious belief in some form of deity. Most theists are “gnostic” in the sense that they confuse belief with knowledge, claiming that they “know for a fact that God is real”, even though there’s no way anyone can honestly claim to know that. But faith is pretending to know things you don’t know. They’re really just asserting how they believe that very strongly. Agnostic theists are the minority, saying they believe in one or more gods, but who is to say what God it is? Or even what a god is? Atheists tend to be the opposite distribution, with the majority being agnostic.
Thomas Huxley invented the word, “agnostic” in 1869. He said, “It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe”. Note that this does not allow an agnostic to deny that lacking belief in a god means they are actually atheist.
The reason Huxley invented that word was that he was irritated with theists saying that they knew that God existed and atheists countering with equal conviction that “no, he doesn’t”. Huxley wanted to invent a middle-of-the-road position on the fence between them. But the fact is that you’re either convinced there is a god or you’re not convinced of that. There is no possible middle-ground between those two. So there is no way to disassociate from both sides and pretend to be superior to either one, the way so many centrists want to do.
UNLESS you pretend that atheism only means the belief or knowledge that no gods exist, which Mr. Agnostic does. He says he doesn’t have a belief in a god, but that he doesn’t have a belief that there’s not a god either; as if that creates a different category apart from atheist. Now, I don’t care what he wants to say about himself. What matters is how he is trying to redefine the rest of our identities. He insists that a lack of belief in God is agnostic, not atheist. Or that those who lack belief in gods should be called “non-theists”, as if that means something different from atheist. It doesn’t. They both mean exactly the same thing. But he wants it to be that atheists must have a belief that there is no deity, and that consequently they must also meet the burden of proof to justify that belief.
Why does this matter?
I’m part of the “atheist out” program, trying to raise our political influence as a demographic, by countering this very propaganda that we used to hear only from religious apologists. It was designed to prevent any reasonable person from identifying as atheist. The problem is that hearing such distortion for decades has worked. Most atheists don’t identify as such, because they don’t realize what that label really means.
Mr. Agnostic has a small following, and they are hurting us as a movement by helping the apologists keep our numbers reported much lower than they really are. If Mr. Agnostic was right, (and he’s not) I would admit it and take the damage of course, but it would undermine virtually all of our concerted efforts to correct this issue over the last couple decades; because the vast majority of atheists would think they’re only agnostics, with no support base against the Religious Rights’ infringements against them. That, and some of our national organizations would have to change their names, like to American Non-theists.
That, and Mr. Agnostic is disrupting the community. My friend, Matt Dillahunty made a public announcement that if Mr. Agnostic felt so strongly about atheists being wrong about what we think we are, then he should call into the Atheist Experience TV show and discuss it live on the air. Instead of taking that invitation, Mr. Agnostic tweeted—without any apparent justification—that Dillahunty was dishonest. That’s when and why I blocked Mr. Agnostic on Twitter.
Because of so many people growing up with this misrepresented misinformation, it seems that most atheists identify as Methodist, or “non-denominational” or “secular” or even “Unitarian”. Some even say, “just because I don’t believe in God doesn’t make me atheist”, but yeah, it definitely does. That is actually the only criteria. It doesn’t matter whether you also have a belief that there is no god. Because that still means you don’t believe there is one.
Even Carl Sagan once denied being atheist because he was duped by the same lie that I was, thinking that “an atheist knows there is no God. An atheist knows more than I do”. According to a mutual friend, James Randi, Sagan eventually understood what atheism really means, and that it actually did apply to him after all.
Sagan’s student, Neil deGrasse Tyson also objects to the atheist label, but for different reasons. He knows it applies to him, but he told me that he just doesn’t want to be associated with certain YouTube atheists; and no, I don’t think he’s talking about me, nor anyone I associate with.
The etymology of atheism is that the prefix “a” means “without” or “lack of”. So “atheism” means “the absence of theism”. Some complain that this would mean that a table, a rock or a baby is atheist, since they lack theism. Yeah, that’s true. A rock can be a-theist just as a rock can be a-morphous, a-political, a-biotic or a-sexual. Babies are born atheist, because what criteria do you have to meet before we can say that you STILL never believed in God?Contrary to some false impressions, one doesn’t have to hear, consider and subsequently reject the claims of theism to already have no theism. If a society developed—perhaps on an alien world—that had never even heard of any gods, that society would be without a god belief, which is all atheist means.
Most of those who lack theism say they’re open to the possibility that there could be a god, because it’s hard to prove that something does NOT exist, especially when it’s supposed to have the power to conceal itself from any means of detection, especially under the definitional cloak of metaphysics, but lacking any reason to believe in such a thing, they are not convinced that an actual deity really does exist.
This was my position for at least fifteen years. Though I didn’t call myself atheist. I called myself an “agnostic pagan for Christ” because I didn’t know any better. Later, after I discarded the last of my supernatural beliefs, I called myself an agnostic atheist for another fifteen years, until I eventually realized that it’s not just that I don’t have any reason to justify belief in God, and thus have no belief; I also have good reasons to justify having a belief that there is no god. One example of that is Hitchens’ Razor, that “what is asserted without evidence may be dismissed without evidence”. There is also the fact that God is defined by his miraculous nature, and miracles are defined as defying the laws of physics, meaning that they are physically impossible, and thus God is physically impossible by definition. Then of course, if he exists outside our reality, then he does not exist in reality. If he is beyond time and created time, then at no time did he create anything. I could list many other much better examples too, depending on specifics.
I know that gods don’t exist in the same way, for the same reasons and to the same degree that I know that leprechauns don’t exist, and Christians are comfortable saying that leprechauns don’t exist simply because there is no evidence of them. So my ruling against God is fair even by their standards. This makes me a “gnostic” atheist, although that term doesn’t really make sense that way. Huxley didn’t make his word to be the opposite of the Gnostics. So most unbelievers would describe people like me as “strong” atheists instead.
Mr. Agnostic ignores dictionary definitions, saying they only give common usage, which he is also ignoring. He says that it’s not the common usage, but it is. I am a former President of Atheist Alliance of America. I am now an official representative of American Atheists, and I’m on the Board of Directors. I’ve been to multiple annual conventions of both national groups that were quite extravagant with hundreds of members and celebrities in attendance. Here’s how the atheist movement defines themselves:
Atheism is one thing: A lack of belief in gods.
Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god nor does it answer any other question about what a person believes. It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system. To be clear: Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.
So the dictionary definitions match that of the movement itself, proving that the way atheists define themselves *is* the correct usage.
Of course Mr. Agnostic objected to this too. If I remember correctly, it was because of the line that “Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god”. He refused to accept that atheism is not DEFINED as a belief that there is no god, but that of course strong atheists like myself would be included as a subset of the parent definition of those who don’t believe in a god, because we don’t.
Mr. Agnostic says he only accepts the philosophical definition of atheism, which is contrasted with agnosticism. But he refuses to admit that even according to his own source, atheism is polysemous, with two equally valid definitions even in philosophy; one of which being the common one that he refuses to admit always applied to him.
It’s also the only distinction that matters. Atheists are the simply the only ones who don’t have any theistic beliefs and thus are the only ones not playing the game of make-believe that others call faith. According to all the religions of Abrahamic monotheism, we are not judged on whether we were good or bad, we are saved or damned primarily over whether we believed.
Did you believe in God?
Yes (theist) = possible forgiveness.
No (atheist) = eternal damnation.
Nobody’s religion offers a third category for those who didn’t believe in God but didn’t have a belief in not-God either. So there’s no point or purpose or value in that position.
Mr. Agnostic’s philosophy source is based on the inclusion of Huxley’s “agnosticism”. But Huxley only made up a new word that has no practical value. He did not change the pre-existing definition of atheism.
I’ll make up a new word myself to illustrate this; nosossary. It means exactly the same thing that “unnecessary” already did, (something that isn’t needed) but my word also means that it doesn’t need to be eliminated either. We know that unnecessary already meant that too, but it’s not spelled out in the definition. So knowledge of my new word might prompt philosophers to treat “unnecessary” as though it meant. “something that must be eliminated”. That’s what “agnostic” does, tries to redefine atheism through association with a new word that only leads to a misuse of the old word.
Mr. Agnostic says the reason I don’t agree with him is because of my ignorance, as if I’m dishonest too, and simply refuse to admit when I’m wrong. He also lied about me in a couple of public videos wherein he repeated that as the reason why I eventually blocked him on Facebook too.
I told him, I may not be interested in philosophy, (because of people like him) but I know a number of atheist philosophers, including some famous ones who don’t agree with Mr. Agnostic, and I don’t think it’s because he knows something that none of them do. Having heard from a few of them, I think it’s the other way around. Of course that wasn’t good enough for Mr. Agnostic. So I had to prove it.
Mr. Agnostic seemed to believe that the modern atheist movement has redefined atheism from its original meaning, which he thought was a positive belief in no-god, rather than a lack of belief in God; the claim of gnostic atheism that Huxley seemed to object to. So I looked up how atheism was defined in Webster’s 1828 dictionary.
A’THEIST, noun [Gr. of a priv. and God.]
One who disbelieves the existence of a God, or Supreme intelligent Being.
So we didn’t redefine this. The way the word is still defined today is the same as it was already defined decades before Huxley made up his word.
Mr. Agnostic accepted the 1828 definition as representing the common usage of that time, but he objected to my interpretation of it. He argued that the way philosophers interpret “disbelief” is as a belief in the negative. That may be, but this is a dictionary, so we can see that what Webster meant by “disbelief” was not what philosophers mean today. In 1828, it meant “Refusal of credit or faith; denial of belief”; not denial of the claim, but denial of belief in the claim, That’s important. It also proves again that I’m right and he is wrong.
Because Mr. Agnostic has made this his identity, he cannot admit that he is wrong about this and thus undo who he is. So he persisted, as he always does, ruining his own interpersonal connections with many different people over not being willing to drop this topic or let us talk about anything else. He kept me on this subject indefinitely and might have wasted the rest of my life on this had I not eventually lost all patience with him.
He said that a denial of belief was not to be interpreted as “I don’t believe you”, which is a lack of belief that carries no burden of proof. Instead, he said that denial must be interpreted as a belief in the negative. But again, we see that same dictionary defines denial as merely a contradiction in response to a claim, “An affirmation to the contrary; an assertion that a declaration or fact stated is not true; negation; contradiction, …often expressed by no or not. Yet again, proving that he is wrong.
In fact there are four definitions given, all of which support an absence of belief over a belief in absence, but he will never admit any error and will never agree to disagree either. He will argue this until one of us dies—or until I finally block him and get on with my life.
I should also add that the root of the word “atheism” is the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning “without god(s)”. The Romans referred to early Christians as atheists, because the Hellenist gods had centuries of theism and so did the Jews, but Christianity was a brand new and heretical cult with none of that that wasn’t borrowed from both of the other two. Instead of the traditional concept of gods, Christians worshiped a man, some guy the Romans had already reportedly crucified.
So again, atheos means “without gods”; not “with a belief in no gods”. Thus atheism is still a lack of theism.
I know that he will go on about this forever, on whatever excuse he can find or make up, valid or not, and for no good reason or benefit to anyone, but he is wrong, and this will be my last word on the matter, so that I need never have this conversation again.