Atheist or agnostic?

Wed Nov 10, 2010

I recently had occasion to exchange a brief email with an old friend I haven’t seen since probably 1994. He read this blog of mine a bit and commented: “And I see you are still holding your athiest beliefs – I am agnostic myself.” I resisted the urge to be pedantic in my reply, and let it pass by without comment.

But, the confusion surrounding these words, “atheist” and “agnostic” is something that comes up all the time. A popular view is that people who call themselves atheists believe that no gods exist, and that people who call themselves agnostics think that “god” (or some gods, but more typically an undefined but singular “god”) may or may not exist — they don’t know.

But, that’s not quite right*. Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive, and they are not points on a line of certainty with certainty that no gods exist at the atheism extreme, agnosticism in the middle, and theism on the opposite extreme of certainty that some god(s) exist. That’s not how it works. Atheism and agnosticism are orthogonal.

The confusion surrounding these words is common enough that it is explained in the FAQ on the atheism “subreddit” of the popular site reddit.com for example.

So, am I an atheist, or an agnostic? Yes. I am both. These two things are not mutually exclusive. Agnosticism has to do with what is thought to be knowable. An agnostic thinks it is not possible to know with certainty whether any gods exist or not. An atheist lacks belief in any gods. It’s pretty much that simple.

Maybe an example or two will help.

Here’s the first example: I’m holding a penny in my hand. It might be heads, it might be tails. Do you hold a belief that is heads? No? You say you don’t know what it is? Do you hold a belief that it is tails? Again no? So you do not hold a belief that it is heads, and you do not hold a belief that it is tails. Does this mean you think it is neither heads nor tails? Of course not, you don’t know what it is, but you don’t have a belief that it is heads or that it is tails, but you might well have a belief that it is (heads or tails).

So, you don’t hold a belief about the head-ness or tail-ness of the penny, because you don’t have enough information.

Well, the existence or non-existence of any gods doesn’t quite match up to the heads/tails possibilities of the penny. After all, we know (barring me playing tricks) that there is an equal probability that the penny is either heads or tails, and that that probability is 0.5 for each — if it is not heads, then it is tails, and vice versa. This is not necessarily the case for the two possibilities “god exists” and “god does not exist.” They are not necessarily of equal probability.

Here’s the second example. I have something in my pocket. You do not know what it is. Do you or would you believe that it is a live African bull elephant? Probably not. Do you believe that it is not a live African bull elephant. Probably you do believe this. Just because you do not know what’s in my pocket doesn’t mean you can’t rule out certain possibilities.

Certain religions seem to make claims much akin to the claim that I have a live African bull elephant in my pocket — which is to say, claims that are obvious bullshit.

So, to the question, “do you believe in God?”, one must ask, “which god?” (Too often, you’ll get the response, “the God, there is no other!”.) But, it makes a difference. Who these days has no opinion about the existence of Zeus, Thor, Poseidon, or The Flying Spaghetti Monster, in the manner that one might have no opinion of whether or not a coin toss of unknown outcome was heads?

The more specific and bizarre the claims made about a god, the more likely I am to reject outright the possibility that such a god exists. A god who deliberately hides himself, but demands that one believe in his existence based only on the writings in a ancient book under penalty of eternal torment after you’re dead for failure to comply seems too farfetched, too conveniently like something someone would make up in order to get people to believe, that I find the entire concept of such a god ridiculous. The invention of the concept of faith, and its elevation to the status of virtue counts in my opinion as one of the greatest mistakes of humanity.

As for the least specific god, the god of Deism, the god who just set the universe loose, and stepped back and ignored it while it unwinds on its own, well, I cannot disprove such a god. I cannot know if such a god exists. So I am agnostic about such a god. But neither do I hold a belief that such a god does exist. So I am an atheist with respect to such a god. I am both. I am an agnostic atheist.

Now, you might ask, well, so you can’t know, but, if you had to place a bet, would you bet that the Deist god exists, or that such a god does not exist? I’d have to bet against such a god’s existence. The typical reasons given for positing such a god succumb to Occam’s razor. (e.g. What caused the universe to exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Etc. Positing a deity doesn’t solve the problem, it just moves it to a place where it cannot be investigated while at the same time (usually) imputing attributes to this deity without sufficient justification (sentience, typically.)

*Not quite right as I see things. There are numerous ways people use words. The OED for example, is full of definitions of words. It tries to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive, in that it describes how people use and have used words. For example, Snoop Dogg’s “fo’ shizzle” is in the OED, but I seriously doubt the OED is prescribing correct usage of “fo’ shizzle,” it’s just explaining what people who use it likely mean.) So among the definitions of atheism, you’ll find the ones that correspond to those which I’m saying are incorrect. They are incorrect inasmuch as I call myself an atheist, and those definitions do not accurately describe my beliefs or lack thereof.

~ by scaryreasoner on November 11, 2010.

7 Responses to “Atheist or agnostic?”

  1. I’d like to share my journey with you.
    First and foremost, I DO NOT believe in God. Just the same, I believe that Jesus saves. Throughout this internal discussion, I reserve the right to disagree with myself. Even more, I treasure the right of anyone to disagree with me.

    I was raised Mormon in San Diego during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.

    There is no god. If there is, I don’t really need Him. I’m not saying I don’t want Him. I could really use him, but I will persevere. After all, what kind of discussion can we have if we don’t allow for the possibility of God?

    I believe in personal responsibility. The thought of hoisting my personal sins onto the shoulders of my most beloved brother repels me. I will NEVER intentionally do this. I believe that I have been, and will continue to be forgiven. If not, then there really is no hope.

    There are many marvelous things about the Mormon church (The Church). The teaching I like the best is that all of us can be Gods. I’m absolutely sure that I’m not ready for this. I’d better have an eternity to achieve this impossible task.

    Now, this teaching very much parallels our recent economic thinking. The overwhelming majority of us have been led to believe we can, in America, ALL live like kings. So how likely is it that we can all be gods? I don’t know. Anything and everything is possible in my still twisted mind. The unfortunate result of this goal of godhood is that it causes many of us to look for the shortcut to perfection (The Shortcut). I looked for The Shortcut myself. I was a missionary at 19, for two years. I tried to do all the right things. I constantly fell short of my expectations. I was excommunicated from The Church at 24. The Church is very forgiving. All I need to do is repent and reinsert myself. I like that. I need a boatload of chances.

    The Church is an excellent path. It has guided two of my brothers into enviable lives. The Church delivers quantifiable results on this earth, and profound promises for the next life. I can’t believe that it is the best path, and certainly it is not the only path. The Church, of course, states that it is the ultimate path. It is not. Even if it turns out that it is, I would most likely prefer to do it the hard way.

    I am a Darwinist. It fits so beautifully into God’s plan that it astounds me. DNA is such an impossibly wonderful tool, who else could have created it? Most assuredly not me. Not yet anyway. Someday……

    The thing I like the most about Darwin is that he provided a scientific hypothesis which points out that every living creature is related to me, on the most basic level. Ancestry. I like that.

    • I’d like to share my journey with you.
      First and foremost, I DO NOT believe in God. Just the same, I believe that Jesus saves. Throughout this internal discussion, I reserve the right to disagree with myself. Even more, I treasure the right of anyone to disagree with me.

      I was raised Mormon in San Diego during the 50′s, 60′s, and 70′s.

      There is no god. If there is, I don’t really need Him. I’m not saying I don’t want Him. I could really use him, but I will persevere. After all, what kind of discussion can we have if we don’t allow for the possibility of God?

      I believe in personal responsibility. The thought of hoisting my personal sins onto the shoulders of my most beloved brother repels me. I will NEVER intentionally do this. I believe that I have been, and will continue to be forgiven. If not, then there really is no hope.

      There are many marvelous things about the Mormon church (The Church). The teaching I like the best is that all of us can be Gods. I’m absolutely sure that I’m not ready for this. I’d better have an eternity to achieve this impossible task.

      Now, this teaching very much parallels our recent economic thinking. The overwhelming majority of us have been led to believe we can, in America, ALL live like kings. So how likely is it that we can all be gods? I don’t know. Anything and everything is possible in my still twisted mind. The unfortunate result of this goal of godhood is that it causes many of us to look for the shortcut to perfection (The Shortcut). I looked for The Shortcut myself. I was a missionary at 19, for two years. I tried to do all the right things. I constantly fell short of my expectations. I was excommunicated from The Church at 24. The Church is very forgiving. All I need to do is repent and reinsert myself. I like that. I need a boatload of chances.

      The Church is an excellent path. It has guided two of my brothers into enviable lives. The Church delivers quantifiable results on this earth, and profound promises for the next life. I can’t believe that it is the best path, and certainly it is not the only path. The Church, of course, states that it is the ultimate path. It is not. Even if it turns out that it is, I would most likely prefer to do it the hard way.

      I am a Darwinist. It fits so beautifully into God’s plan that it astounds me. DNA is such an impossibly wonderful tool, who else could have created it? Most assuredly not me. Not yet anyway. Someday……

      The thing I like the most about Darwin is that he provided a scientific hypothesis which points out that every living creature is related to me, on the most basic level. Ancestry. I like that.

  2. Two almost identical comments? Put down the beer stein thespeculationist. You’re done for tonight.

    I could argue with some of your points (e.g. the “enviable life” is an appeal to consequences) but I suspect you’re aware of these things. Some of this stuff comes down to how curious of a person you are, and how much it matters to you that your beliefs should be “true” in some objective sense and how tolerant your mind is of inconsistencies and cognitive dissonance. For some people, it doesn’t seem to even matter whether what they (claim to) believe is actually true. It’s an attitude that is very alien to me, but I have encountered such people.

    And, “jesus saves?” Saves (presumably people) from what? And how? If you mean being a member of the church has benefits, well, duh, being a member of most any club has benefits.

    And, what does any of this have to do with the distinction between atheism and agnosticism or with the meaning of these two words, which is the subject of this post? Well, you probably realize, not too much. I’ll let it slide.

  3. Great post. I am totally confused as to why there is confusion between the terms “atheism” and “agnosticism”.

    I’ve always said that atheism and agnosticism are orthogonal. That is, they are completely independent of one another. Agnosticism goes to “knowledge”, while atheism addresses “belief” or – better worded – it addresses the proposition that gods exist. (For goodness sake, even the Greek roots of these words should make this obvious.) Thus it is entirely possible to be an “agnostic atheist” and pretty much any person labeling themselves as agnostic are really atheists. Those calling themselves agnostics usually answer the question of whether or not they believe in a god with “No, but….” Sorry, but everything after the “No” is irrelevant. If one can’t answer that question in the affirmative, they’re an atheist whether they like it or not (yeah, I’m looking at you, Neil deGrasse Tyson…). An agnostic atheist perhaps, but still an atheist.

    An even bigger misconception I run into is that atheism is defined as the belief that there are no gods, rather than correctly as the rejection of the proposition that gods exist. These are separate claims, and the former is better described by the term “antitheism” (which Christopher Hitchens correctly uses to describe his beliefs).

    A lot of believers simply can’t wrap their minds around this nuance, critical to understanding atheists as it is. I’ve even had run-ins with believers whose incorrect notions about atheism are so ingrained that try to tell me what I believe rather than it being the other way round, which is utterly ridiculous. In the end, such people simply demonstrate their inability to move beyond their bases as contradictory evidence is presented and have completely lost touch with reality. Such people are so far gone that no amount of reason and evidence can shatter this imaginary world they have constructed in order to sustain the unsustainable.

    And that’s what ‘faith’ is- it is the ability to believe something no matter how little evidence supporting the belief there is. Worse, faith is considered stronger when the belief is held despite strong contradictory evidence. I am in total agreement with how we should view “faith” in this context. Faith is simply a rejection of reality. It is not to be admired. It is not to be sought after. It is not to be respected. If someone wants to believe that which requires this kind of faith, they’d best keep it to themselves or suffer severe criticism. Faith is exactly what Dawkins was thinking of when he title his book “The God Delusion”.

    I respect the right of others to hold beliefs, but nothing says I need respect the beliefs they hold. Just because I believe that others have the right to believe what they wish doesn’t mean that once these beliefs are espoused they can’t be examined critically. In fact, this is obligatory. Believers perceive such examination as being intolerance of belief and play the martyr card whenever beliefs they have faith in are challenged, but his is just so much bullshit and self-pity. All ideas should be subject to critical examination without appealing to the category a belief falls under.

    This automatic pass given to religious belief has proven to be a disaster and is essentially over. (I’m sure Pope Benadick longs for the days of stake burnings and the like. But his assumption that just because he is a religious leader he is exempt from criticism must confuse the hell out of him when protests arise during his incredibly expensive visits, the money from which could have been given much better purpose. How dare we? Heh.)

    We are not attacking the right of believers to believe as they wish. We are just pointing out that religion has proven itself to not be a good moral guide, that public policy based on religion leads to measurable societal harm (including contributing to a great many deaths in the case of AIDS in Africa), is neither a gaurantor of good behavior nor a requirement for governance, creates social schisms through an “us versus them” mentality, breeds intolerance based on sexual orientation or dissimilar belief and those with “faith” think nothing of imposing their values (whose sole justification is that they are contained in antiquated books representing barbaric tribal values we – for the most part – abhor and would incarcerate anyone who acted on such values to the letter) on everyone regardless of whether they do or do not share those values.

  4. Excellent essay. Rigorous and lucid.

  5. It’s always irked me how often people seem to think of atheism and agnosticism are mutually exclusive concepts, like you can only be one or the other.

  6. A succinct, insightful post. Thanks!

    But it’s important to keep in mind that dfinitions are context-dependent. As the author noted in reponse to his “agnostic” friend, he “resisted the urge to be pedantic.” As well he should, in a conversational context.

    In terms of how people actually use the words, I’ve found that those who tote the athiest banner most vehemently tend to be anti-theists, thus making it more likely that those who self-identify with the term “athiest” are quite often anti-theists. While those people who refer to themselves as agnostics are almost always what this author would call an “agnostic athiest”.

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