Why We May Need To Change How We Talk About Agnostics

Why We May Need To Change How We Talk About Agnostics October 29, 2016

Disclaimer: I am speaking purely from my own experiences for this post. Feel free to disagree with me or to share your own experiences down below in the comments section.

As a fairly confident debater and member of the global skeptical community I’ve met hundreds of theists, atheists, gnostics. and agnostics and participated in dozens of online debates. In my experience atheists tend to have difficulties communicating with agnostics, especially when it comes to agnostics who lean towards skepticism as opposed to leaning towards belief in deities. If this doesn’t apply to you then you shouldn’t worry too much about this but if you are someone who has previously “called out” agnostics I hope you’ll take a few moments to read what I am about to write.

This very frustrated word-person is brought to you by Pixabay.
This very frustrated word-person is brought to you by Pixabay.

Agnostics are not atheists. Not by definition. Just because you don’t claim to have knowledge about something doesn’t mean you automatically lack a belief in it. We need to understand that agnosticism and atheism (and theism) are different labels for many reasons, but mostly because they answer different (although often similar) questions.  Many of the agnostics I’ve met are individuals who lack certainty when it comes to the existence or nonexistence of any particular deities. Even agnosticism refers to the ideas of those who believe that nothing is known when it comes to certain claims such as the existence and possibly the nature of God and maybe even that such things could never be known and this doesn’t prevent someone from believing in or worshiping a deity of their choice. People like to fit all agnostics into one category: the skeptical category. They like to bunch up agnostics with atheists and I know many atheists like this as well but by refusing to act like agnostic believers exist we are excluding a category of intellectually honest believers and once again trying to simplifying the way that people believe. This is harmful. And it fits into the way at least some Christians want to see agnostics with silly verses like Revelation 3:16, which shouldn’t even be used at agnostics (because it refers specifically to lukewarm Christians) but has been by casual Christians before and undoubtedly will be in the future.

I’ve seen multiple atheists launch attacks on agnostics saying things like “agnostics are just atheists who don’t want to be honest with themselves” or even calling agnostics things like “chickenshit atheists”. That is harmful to everyone not just excluding agnostic theists but also implying that agnosticism is some sort of weak atheism and not a response to a separate question and an altogether distinct position that can and oftentimes does exist alongside both belief and skepticism. We need to stop stereotyping and antagonizing agnostics. If we make theists think that all agnostics are in the same category as us we’ll get them to want to hurt agnostics and get them to want to exclude agnostics even more than agnostics often are. If we belittle agnostics ourselves and demand that they act like they are always with us then we push them further away and make it harder to normalize skepticism and doubt.

One of my goals is to normalize skepticism and doubt and a way to do that is by reminding people of the complex attitudes possible towards belief. An attitude which often goes undiscussed is agnostic theism, which is when people aren’t sure of the existence of deities but choose to believe anyway. Some of my friends are agnostic theists and they are fantastic individuals who can and do empathize with nonbelievers. I don’t want to push them away by demanding that all agnostics are skeptics or by making fun of agnostics and by not calling out individuals who do this. Especially because I myself am agnostic in addition to be an atheist. It’s frustrating to see my friends who openly call themselves agnostics and prioritize that over their theism or atheism get increasingly incensed by the way many atheists treat them. I don’t want to push away people who understand my position and often agree with others who also lack a belief. I don’t see what the purpose of making fun of agnostics is, unless one wants to get “edginess” points.

Have you had different experiences when it comes to talking to and about agnostics? I’d love to know. This has just been the way I’ve seen agnostics being treated and talked about in groups that I am a member of so I would love to hear from you. Lately I’ve seen this issue getting blown up by Christians who like to believe that agnosticism and atheism are mutually exclusive and that when an agnostic “becomes” an atheist they are getting further from the truth and that when an atheist “becomes” an agnostic they are somehow inching closer to Christianity or at the very least theism.

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