Friday, September 11, 2009

Contrasting "Agnosticism" and "Atheism"

Within the secular community and our broader society, there is much debate over the meaning and use of the words Atheist/Atheism and Agnostic/Agnosticism.  Each of these words mean different things to different people, which obviously creates problems, because clear communication can only occur when people either agree or are aware of the definitions of words used by those they communicate with.  In this article, I'll discuss these words, common definitions of them, and offer my own ideas.  Also, for the sake of brevity, I'll use the word "god" to also include the possibility of "gods".

There are many colloquial definitions of the word Agnostic and I think all are problematic and ultimately useless.  One definition of an Agnostic is someone who is not sure whether there is a god or not.  By this definition, everyone is an agnostic, because there is currently no definitive proof whatsoever that any gods exist.  This word by this definition is, for all intents and purposes, useless.  Certainly people can believe that a god exist, but just because people believe something, doesn't mean that what they believe is actually true.  If someone does assert that something is true, then it is incumbent upon them to offer evidence/proof of their assertion and as the old saying goes, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Another definition of Agnostic, is someone who thinks the existence of a god is unknowable.  Again, as of this moment, the existence of gods is unknown, but just because it is currently unknown, doesn't mean it will always be unknown.  If someone makes that claim, then they must prove it is true and by necessity, they would have to demonstrate that they can foresee the future, which no one can.  Of course it is possible that if there was a god, it could appear and demonstrate it's existence.  Further, we have no idea of the methods and instruments science will develop in the future, which will increase our understanding of what exists.  Since no one can prove that the existence of god will always be unknowable, "Agnostic" by this definition is useless as well.

The word "Atheist" also has different meanings for different people.  Some people define an Atheist as someone who doesn't believe in a god.  Unlike the word Agnostic, the word Atheist doesn't contain inherent ambiguity and defines people who actually take a stance, so it is meaningful.  Most Atheists by this definition say they are Atheists because of the fact that there is no evidence of a god.  This definition could also mean someone who believes there is not a god.

Some say that an Atheist is someone who knows there is no god.  This word is problematic for the very same reasons the word Agnostic is problematic.  Just because there is no evidence for the existence of god doesn't mean one can deduce that there is no god.  There is a saying that "You can't prove a negative", meaning you can't prove that something doesn't exist, but this saying is not true.  You can prove a negative for some things.  For example, if I sit at a table with nothing on it that I can see, I can prove an apple doesn't exist on the table, because one property of "apple" is that it is visually identifiable.  What this quote really means is that you can't prove that something doesn't exist somewhere, which today is true.  In order to prove a negative by these standards, a person would have to know everything.

Yet while I can not absolutely know that there is no god, I do feel somewhat safe asserting the I know there is no god, in the very same way and by the very same standards that people assert they know there are no unicorns, leprechauns, or Christmas elves.  There is just as much evidence for god as there is for not only these things, but also invisible fire breathing cats orbiting earth who like to drink Caramel Frappuccinos.

The bottom line is either people believe in a god or they don't.  If you believe in a god, you're a theist.  If you don't, you're an Atheist.


  1. *REPOSTED FROM ANDERS, September 12, 2009 4:57 AM

    You wrote: "Most Atheists by this definition say they are Atheists because of the fact that there is no evidence of a god."

    In my website there is one formal logical proof: (see the left menu)
    It proofs the existence of a Creator and His purpose of humankind.

    Anders Branderud

  2. Anders:

    I did go on your page to look for the formal logical proof you commented about, but am not sure where to find it. If you could please direct me to the specific place to find it, I'd be interested to read it and will comment.

  3. *REPOSTED FROM BRET, September 16, 2009 4:59 PM

    Quick comment. Like the blog overall. Some of the articles seem to contain a message that atheism is a product of reasoning, logic and overall superior intellect combined with an emotional willingness to let go of old beliefs. Notice that the description I gave was that of what we would call a smart person. Are we to beleive that Christians are mental midgets? I understand that past experience has shaped your thoughts and feelings in this area; however, there are those that have applied reasoning and logic, have asked the hard questions and have come to the conclustion that they believe in God as described by the Bible. Food for thought, not everyone wants to burn you at the stake and there are many Christians that are your intellectual equals. I look forward to your future articles.

  4. BRET:

    I appreciate the comment Bret. In response, I don't think that Atheism is the product of the things you said. Most of the Atheists I know however do value logic and reason. For a very long time, I have not liked the concept of a "smart person" as it's too vague and general. I believe different people are smart in different ways. I believe past experience shapes the thought and feelings of all individuals in all areas. I know of no valid application of logic and reason that leads to the conclusion that any god exists. There have been people who have tried and constructed arguments such as The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG) and The Kalam Cosmological Argument, but these are not logically valid. If you do know of such a proof, I would be extremely interested. Thanks for the comment again.

  5. *REPOSTED FROM BRET, September 18, 2009 1:00 PM

    A few things:

    1. I have no interest in convincing you or anyone else that there is a god and part of my original comment was to let you know that there are many Christians that are not hostile to non-Christians.

    2. I have no idea what any of the arguments you reference are nor do I care to spend my time examining them. I already know there is no way to prove there is a god so why would I waste my valuable time attempting to reinvent the wheel? Why would I research something I already know the answer to? I'm not sure I claimed to have any proof or valid argument and why would I since I have no interest in convincing anyone of god's existence?

    3. "I know of no valid application of logic and reason that leads to the conclusion that any god exists." - quoted from your comment. My question: Is there a valid application of logic and reason that leads to the conclusion that no god exists? If so, then I would have to draw another conclusion - that atheists were more capable, either inherently or through education, of discerning fact from fiction. Is this correct?

    4. What am I really driving at? I am content to live in harmony with all religions; however, I am uncomfortable with the idea that atheists may be superior.

  6. BRET:

    Thank you again for the comments. I'll present my responses under the same numeration you wrote.

    1. I understand that you are not trying to convince people. I completely agree that there are many (and I would say most) Christians who are not hostile to non-Christians. If you are trying to reassure me, I appreciate that.

    2. I agree with you there is no way to prove the existence of any god, such as through a logical argument, however there are those who try. I was responding to this statement of yours: "there are those that have applied reasoning and logic, have asked the hard questions and have come to the conclustion that they believe in God as described by the Bible." From this statement, it seemed you were saying that you know people have applied logic and reason and have come to the conclusion that God exists. Since you're saying you know this has happened, I was hoping you would present their methods and how their premises led to a valid conclusion, because I have never seen any evidence of this.

    3. The answer to your question is in this article.

    4. I am content to live in harmony with people of different religious beliefs as well, though the religious beliefs of a few are harmful to others, such as the people who flew planes into the World Trade Center in 2001. I completely agree with you and am not in any way comfortable with the idea of Atheists being superior to others and never said they are. If you choose to, I suggest you read the articles I have written in chronological order, as they may clarify confusion or misunderstanding. In particular, read the article on the purpose of the blog. It may be helpful.

    I thank you again for your comments and greatly appreciate them!

  7. *REPOST FROM CHRIS BROWN, October 3, 2009 10:18 PM

    Very nice article. I think you hit on several very good points, especially in regards to the ambiguity of the term agnostic. The meaning of terms has long been an important issue in philoosophical circles. Not that I'm in such a circle, but from my reading I have seen this LOL Agreement on the definition of terms is as you stated a "must" for clear communication. As in my above story, we couldn't agree on the same "definition": of, he was not some guy they found in sheets in a tomb. LOLThis isn't exactly the same, but it proves a point that if the parties cannot agree on basic terms or knowledge, then further discussion is prevented.

    I really like your term "The Serene Atheist." I think that is a very interesting concpet. Many theists believe that an atheist "just can't be happy, or content, etc. They have no meaning in their lives." That's balderdash! I would argue that much more meaning can be found by focusing on the HERE and NOW. Serene reminds me of the idea of contement or even acceptance. Despite the troubles of the world, being serene, balanced, contment is a worthy goal. And is not predicated on the existence of god.

    The ideas you expressed about the term agnostic certainly ring true with me. There is most definitely an element of uncertainty by holding this poistion. I think it safe to say that both atheists and theists are more likely to be "serene" than a lot of agnostics. Believers and nonbelievers in god have a clear position. The agnostic is sometimes like a kite with no string. Though I believe a level of equanimity can be achieved even by agnostics, it may take more work to achieve however.

    Your statements on the budren of proof and Sagan's "Extraordinary clams require extraordinary evidence was good. I am thinking also about "avsence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence." Just because there is no evidence doesn't mean the "thing" doesn't exist, it just hasn't been shown to exist at this time. Yet I have a hard time believing in anything if there's no evidence for it. Though, to be sure we all, including me, sometimes hold irrational beliefs. See Ellis's work on distorted thinking.

    I found your diiscussion about "feeling" as it relates to belief or non belief in god. Many times people use emotional reaqsoning to justify or strengthen their beliefs on a vareiety of subjects. Many times this "feeling" overrides any cognitive process. "I feel there is a god, so there must be one." Or "I don't feel there is a god, so there isn't one>" To my thinking, it is related to the confirmation bias. We seek out information that confirms or supports the view we hold. Or the view we want to keep holding. Contrary evidence is ignored or reduced in importance.

    Many people, past and present, have stressed the importance of using reason to temper the use of overly emotional reasoning. Too much "passion" clouds the thought process. I am currently listening to Homer's Illiad on CD. A central theme in the story is Achilles's anger at Agamenon (spelling" and Achilles refuses to take the field. It is interesting to me that only the death of Patrocles brings Achilles into action. And it is due to his intense anger and grief. Both Achilles and Agamemnon allow their egos and passion to cloud their rational thought. one of our most important goals should, IMO, be to temper our passion or feeling. Not do any with them as hardline Stoics might suggest. But to make efforts to use reason, especially in times of great emotional disturbance.

    Again, very nice article!!!

  8. *REPOST FROM JEREMY C, October 3, 2009 10:23 PM

    Great thoughts, but I absolutely disagree that an agnostic is a kite without a string. In fact Infind it to be the only tenable nonbeliever position. Atheist denotes a belief of an absense. Some Agnostics may be wishy washy but it also means we find the question inherently meaningless and admit that we cannot disprove a negative anymore than theists can prove a positive. I don't find myself a Norse atheist or a Buddhist atheist or an Islam atheist any more or less than a Christian atheist. I don't even question their existence I just accept there's no proof and likely will be none. Though I do use atheist to describe myself often because most think of agnostics as being uncommitted. ;) it's the beauty of humanity and divergent paths. I'll talk more with you guys when I'm off this bloody phone and on a regular computer.

  9. *REPOST FROM CHRIS BROWN, October 3, 2009 10:26 PM:

    Hello all.

    This has been a great discussion. Due to my circumstances I have rather limited opportunities to get out and about. And even less opportunity to discuss these subjects cordially with others. Thanks to everyone for this.

    Several months ago I was reading a book by a Unitarian Universalist writer. Sadly, my vision worsened considerably and I have not been able to continuye the read. The UUs are to my mind a generally open minded group of peeps. Nobody is expected to follow a "creed" or hold certain beliefs. It is very electic. A whole mob of other Christian denominations don't even consider them worthwhile. Which is probably why I do find them interesting LOLThey welcome atheists, theists, and agnostics and believe everyone has their own path to walk and let them do so. I don't want to go off track here and I'm not trying to "sell" the UUs LOL But I wanted to give a little background for my next paragraph...

    This book tried to analyze UU members along three lines of "belief"...theist, atheist, and agnostic. Using the term belief is probably a bad choice of words for me to use. But you get the point. There was a general discussion about these three categories and then a more extensive application of each to the path many UUs tend to walk. I think it probably holds true for many people. It does for me. I've moved from one category to the next and bounce back and forth. As I have a tendency to go to extremes, it is quite probable that using the identifier "agnostic" is The Middle Way for me. Keeps me from getting to engrossed in it all LOL

    Hey, sorry to have babbled on and on in this thread. But as I said, this is the first time in a long time that I've been able to discuss important stuff.

  10. *REPOST FROM ANDY WEIDERT, October 3, 2009 10:28 PM:

    Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. Theism points to what you believe. Gnosticism points to what you know. Anyone who believes in a god is a theist. Everyone who doesn’t is an atheist. An agnostic atheist (weak atheist) doesn’t believe in any god claims, but they don’t make the claim that all gods are impossible. A gnostic atheist (strong atheist) doesn’t believe in any god claims, and asserts that any god claim would have to be false.

    I am a strong atheist, and I agree with your points about proving a negative and absolute certainty. The onus is always on the person making the claim, but if there is going to be an actual honest argument, the definition and characteristics assigned to a god claim must always come from the theist. Anything else would be a straw man.

    All theistic claims for the existence of any god are either logically unsound or logically invalid, and if something exists outside of logic (or reality for that matter), no claims of characteristics can be made. If there are no characteristics, there is no god claim. There is nothing to believe in, and the default position is atheism.

    You’ve obviously been able to generate a good discussion on this topic. Keep up the good work.

  11. Thanks for the excellent comments everyone. I'll respond to the comments in the order received. Incidentally, I used to refer to myself as an Agnostic, but changed to Atheist/Freethinker for the reasons I discussed in the article I wrote.

    CHRIS: Thank you for your compliment of the name of my blog. I wholly agree with you that a lot of misinformation, both intentional and nonintentional, gets spread about Atheism, particularly statements that Atheists are not content or happy. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am much happier with the beliefs I have now compared to when I was a Christian. My plan is to continue writing the series on The Benefits of Atheism to correct these misconceptions.

    I appreciated your comment about how many theists state their belief is based on "feelings" instead of proof. I have heard this a lot and certainly remember believing the same thing when I was a Christian. However, there are huge problems with people believing things based on feelings instead of facts and I don't think anyone delineated this better than when Stephen Colbert discussed "truthiness". I do plan on writing more on this topic as well in the future.

    JEREMY: I was a bit confused by your email and an wondering if you read the article. I greatly value your thoughs and would like to hear what you specifically agree and don't agree with in the article I wrote. I look forward to hearing from you.

    ANDY: I've heard of those definitions before. I chose to address the more colloquial definitions of Agnosticism in the article and appreciate you bringing those other definitions up. Like you, I consider myself a Strong Atheist. Again, I don't absolutely KNOW that there are no gods, but I know in the same way as everyone else who says they KNOW there are no unicorns, leprechauns, or Flying Spaghetti Monster.