A Message for ‘Agnostics’

I’ve met, in my travels, a number of people who call themselves ‘agnostic.’ In many cases, they contrast this position against my being an atheist, saying that they are not willing to say that there is no god, they just don’t know. They aren’t religious and they just don’t understand why we atheists can think that we know there isn’t a god. Well, I have a message for people who hold this point of view.

Agnostics, you are atheists too.

OK, allow me to clarify. When a person tells me that they don’t know whether a god exists, thus calling themselves an agnostic, they are trying to contrast their perspective with what they think mine–an atheist’s–is. What they do not understand is that in most cases, when someone calls themselves an agnostic, they mean exactly the same thing that I do when I call myself an atheist.

I call myself an agnostic-atheist in these conversations. This usually causes the self-identified ‘agnostic’ to look at me with some confusion. “How can you be both?” they ask, and I say that the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ address different questions and are not mutually exclusive.

Let me break it down for you:

Theist: One who holds a belief in some god or gods.

Atheist: One who lacks belief in any gods (a- = negation or lack)

gnostic: this is a Greek word for knowledge. Not to be confused with the ancient religious traditions generally referred to as the Gnostics. This term simply means knowledge, and in this context it implies that to be a ‘gnostic’ is to know whether or not there is a god.

agnostic: to either claim to not know whether there is a god or not or to believe it to be impossible to know whether there is a god or not.

Thus, if I am an agnostic-atheist, it means that while I do not know with certainty that there is no god of any kind, I do not currently believe there is one. That is, I am not convinced in the existence of a god. I do not claim to know that there are no gods of any kind.

Also, an agnostic-theist is someone who, while not having certainty, believes that a god exists. And while they may claim certainty, I believe that this is impossible. While one cannot deny the experiences they have, they can be skeptical about the interpretation of those experiences. Thus, a person’s ‘experience of god,’ while it may be a real experience, may have another explanation and thus cannot be used as certain knowledge of god, just of some experience that they interpret as god.

So, what would a gnostic-atheist or a gnostic-theist look like? This would be a person who was certain that they knew whether or not there was a god. Does anybody fit this criteria? I don’t think so.

And while an atheist might say that a particular god does not exist, whether due to logical impossibility or for any other reason, this does not address that larger question of whether any gods exist. Thus, ‘gnostic’ seems to be an impossible position to hold, for me, and thus agnostic actually becomes redundant, since everyone is an agnostic.

Agnosticism is not some fence position between atheism and theism. It is not some place where you can sit and feel superior to atheists because you aren’t being judgmental towards belief in god. Rather, it is what you call yourself when you don’t know what an atheist means when they say they don’t believe in god. It is a way to weasel out of answering the question of whether you believe in god or not. The answer “I’m agnostic” is answering a different question, not fence-sitting.

You either believe in some god or you do not. There is no possible middle ground on this issue.

If you are not sure or you are still thinking about it, it means that you don’t currently actually hold a belief in a god, and are, technically, an atheist. Similarly, if you believe but are still questioning, you are a theist. I’m sure that some people waver between being an atheist and a theist many times, perhaps depending on mood, the last argument for or against, and maybe even howtheir day is going.

But for you ‘agnostics’ who think that calling yourself an ‘agnostic’ because you have bought this BS about atheism being the absurd position of certainty that no god exists have swallowed it whole. You are likely atheists, just like me.

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33 responses to “A Message for ‘Agnostics’

  1. According to your definitions:

    Theist: One who holds a belief in some god or gods.

    Atheist: One who lacks belief in any gods (a- = negation or lack)

    gnostic: this is a Greek word for knowledge. Not to be confused with the ancient religious traditions generally referred to as the Gnostics. This term simply means knowledge, and in this context it implies that to be a ‘gnostic’ is to know whether or not there is a god.

    agnostic: to either claim to not know whether there is a god or not or to believe it to be impossible to know whether there is a god or not.

    Just as one can be an agnostic and atheist at the same time, one can also be an agnostic and a theist at the same time. (Incidentally, is there a reason you capitalized “Theist” and “Atheist”? Neither are proper nouns.)

    “Knowledge” of something and “belief” in something are two different concepts. If they weren’t, then saying you are an agnostic atheist would be redundant and the word “atheist” would be entirely unnecessary. There are plenty of theists out there who if you ask them if they can “know” whether their God exists and their religion is true or not would reply “Of course I can’t know. But I have faith.” Thus they are both theists and agnostics.

  2. Plain Jane,

    My capitalization of ‘theist’ and ‘atheist’ was an oversight. It was not significant.

    Also, about being an agnostic theist, I actually mention that in the article. I disagree that saying that you are an atheist is unnecessary, however. I wonder if you actually read the entire article before commenting….

  3. I did read the whole article. I’m saying that the argument it makes is inconsistent with the definitions it presents. It seems to me that you want atheism to own the term agnostic. You want to insist that there is no middle ground between faith and doubt, that is is black and white. I disagree with you based on the definitions you presented in the article.

    But this is, of course, just a silly semantics argument. The reality is that there are plenty of agnostics out there who insist, many quite vehemently, that they are not atheists. So you can tell them they are atheists until you are blue in the face, but this is not how the term is actually used in practice and by the majority who use the label in real life and on record, your arguments will not stand the test of time.

  4. To be clearer, since I think I probably wasn’t – there is a difference between really thinking there is no God and refusing to take a stance on the issue at all. You insist that people must either believe in God or not. That’s not so. They can also refuse to answer the question because of lack of information, and that is not the same as concluding that there is no God, as atheists do.

  5. ok, you say…

    “To be clearer, since I think I probably wasn’t – there is a difference between really thinking there is no God and refusing to take a stance on the issue at all. You insist that people must either believe in God or not. That’s not so. They can also refuse to answer the question because of lack of information, and that is not the same as concluding that there is no God, as atheists do.”

    I agree that there is a difference. Thinking that there is no god is different than not answering the question. The point I was making is that if you DO answer the question then there are only two possibilities; Either you do actually believe in a god or you do not. In other words, you believe or you lack belief. As I said, atheism is not saying that there is no god, but rather a position of lacking belief. Going further, and claiming as many atheists do, that there is no god or thinking that there isn’t one, is what may atheists do, BUT THIS IS NOT ATHEISM.

    Thus, in not answering the question, whether because of lacking information or whatever, still could imply, as you said in a previous comment, either theism or atheism. The mistake is insisting that atheism is the position that there is no god, rather than the epistemologically different position of merely lacking such a belief. Thus, if the question is whether one believes in a god (theism) and lacking such belief, for whatever reasons (atheism), the there is no possible middle-ground.

    And yes, many ‘agnostics will hold your view, but the point of my post was to show why this view is simply not true. It comes from the misunderstanding of what ‘atheism’ is, which I addressed in the post, which you are assuming here. That is why I asked if you read the entire post, because you seemed to miss the critical distinction between what you think atheism is and what atheism actually is. See, this lack of belief is the one thing that all atheists share, no matter their definition of the term. It is the LACK OF BELIEF in any gods. And, AGAIN, any claim by people with this lack of belief who go FURTHER and ALSO claim that there is no god or that they think there is no god, is epistemologically distinct from this lack of belief, ad thus says something IN ADDITION to their atheism.

    I hope that helps

  6. You wrote: “And yes, many ‘agnostics will hold your view, but the point of my post was to show why this view is simply not true.”

    You seem to be trying to claim that there is a single, objective definition for the word “atheist.” The fact of the matter is that in both common usage and in many dictionary definitions, an atheists is defined as something who believes there is no God.

    What’s more, you are really splitting hairs. Most agnostics I’ve met who have talked to me about their agnosticism really are pretty much in the middle on the whole God question, while most atheists I’ve met (including myself) don’t merely “lack” belief in a God, we find the existence of any traditionally proposed deity so tremendously improbable that is much more accurate to say that we positively believe in no God. Thus, the two different terms used that way (as they actually are) do have a meaningful difference in society, while what you are proposing would require constantly “correcting” of most people, including highly educated people and some books of reference.

    It seems that you are the one who is misunderstanding agnostics, not them misunderstanding atheism.

    Incidentally, I’m an atheist. I’m just sick of other atheists who happened to come across the whole “positive atheist” and “negative atheist” concept insisting that agnostics really are atheists. This breaks down the meaning of these words in common conversation and really annoys my agnostic friends. Also, as an atheist, I like the clarity of that term. I think the idea that a traditional “God” exists is, well, silly. Not because I’m a dogmatic atheist, but because I’m a rationalist when it comes to that question. Typical agnostics don’t think the idea of God is silly nor are they total rationalist concerning the question. And sitting around having long drawn out conversations about the differences between “atheism” and “agnosticism” isn’t nearly as useful as having these two words mean what they already mean in common usage.

  7. The bottom line is that everyone who calls themselves an atheist has one thing in common; the lack of belief in any gods. And while some go further, this definition is what unites them and thus is the most cohesive and coherent definition that will include anyone who might call themselves atheists.

    I also believe that the concept of god is silly, and believe that the vast majority of god concepts are unbelievable. I still hold the possibility that some vague concept of god is possible, even though I don’t believe there is any reason to believe they exist. So, thus while I would agree with your position, even if I didn’t think that gods were silly concepts, my lack of belief in them would be sufficient to label myself an atheist.

    Your agnostic friends are epistemological cowards. I don’t care if they are annoyed, because they are unwilling to have the guts to actually answer the question. If they don’t believe there is a god, even if they are just keeping an open mind about it, then they are technically, according to the most cohesive and coherent usage, atheists.

    The commonly used definitions and uses of the term ‘atheist’ are simply a log of contemporary misuse. So if you are an atheist who believes gods don’t exist, then that doesn’t make you not and atheist. In fact, your definition includes atheism necessarily, it’s just that not all atheists will say that there are no gods. Think of this like a Venn diagram of the larger circle being labeled ‘atheist’ and the inner, smaller circle (that is completely within the larger one) “the belief that there is no god” (call it anti-theism, strong atheism, or whatever). What you think of as the definition of atheism is just what many atheists fall into, but it is not the exhaustive definition.

    And I don’t insist that all agnostics are atheists, just the wusses that you have for friends that refuse to answer the question about god. They can try and hang out in the middle, but whether they actually answer it or not, they actually do believe in a god or they don’t, even if this belief might waver minute to minute between the two.

    a-gnostic; without knowledge. I agree that they don’t know whether god exists, the question is what their current belief, or lack-thereof, is at the moment. And they may not all find the idea of gods silly. This is not a requisite criterion of an atheist. I know many atheists who don’t find the idea of gods silly, they just don’t believe in them.

    Finally….

    Tomkinson?

  8. So,
    how did we get here? Humans, planet earth, atmosphere and all that?

  9. Good questions. If you would like to learn about such things, I suggest looking at some science books. They give some pretty good answers based on good evidence-based support.

    If you mean to imply that a god would be necessary to explain these things, say because of the complexity of the process, then I will point out that saying that god did it actually adds nothing to the explanation. In fact, it adds one more mystery. If a complex things needs an explanation, saying ‘godidit’ actually does not clarify the problem at all. All it does is add a layer to the problem.

    Finally, if God is necessary to explain the existence of complex things, then what created God?

  10. No, I only asked what do you believe. If you believe in the big bang, say so, if you believe in random chance, say so. It’s a simple question, and if you believe it can you explain it?

  11. If it were such a simple question, then why leave so many implications that imply complexity?

    I accept that the big bang, or the rapid expansion of space-time, is the best model we currently have to explain the existence of the universe in its current state. I accept the models we have for describing the formation of the solar system as the best as well.

    What puzzles me is what that question has to do with the article at hand? I was not talking about cosmology or planet formation, so I understandably assumed that your question was a challenge to the scientific worldview. If it wasn’t, then you seem to come across as disingenuous.

  12. I didn’t know of any other way to ask the question that I could see from the web site. I am sure I didn’t look long enough or I am not versed enough in blogging protocol. I am under the impression that your desire is to control the conversatation by stating your point of view and then bantering with whomever wishes to interact. I had a question to pose and asked it. By your andwer I am undef the impression you haven’t given it much thought, lest you would have given me a Straight forward answer. Where or what is the origin of species? If you have a belief, what is it? You do not believe in a creator (God, superior alien lifeform, big voodoo from the sky), you must have some thought on the subject other than I accept these models. As it stands you believe that something as complex as a human randomly evolved from nothing. Nothing cannot come from nothing.

  13. I have given this thought. You replied to a post that had nothing to do with what you asked.

    I accept evolution by natural selection (among other evolutionary pressures). I do not think that we randomly evolved from nothing. Natural selection is not random. It is a process that has definite rules and processes, not randomness. Mutation of genes during procreation can be thought of as random, but this is not the cause of evolution itself, but one of the factors involved.

    I do not believe that it came from nothing. YOu cannot conflate the issues of evolution and of the origin of the universe. Evolution is a process that happens to living, reproducing things over long periods of time due to a number of causes after there is a place for them to live. The origin of the universe, from the rapid expansion we call the “big bang” (although this is really no the best name for it, IMHO) did not necessarily come from nothing.

    On the other hand, the story of creation from the book of Genesis does imply it came from nothing (that’s what ‘ex nihilo’ means). God spoke and it was. My question is where did God come from? If the universe needs a creator, why doesn’t the creator? That’s special pleading.

    I believe that evolution as well as the big bang, neithe rof which are random or from nothing, ar ethe best current explanations of where our species and universe came from. Does that satisfy you?

  14. So, you believe we evolved to where we are today? Out of primordial ooze, everything came togrther and we were one celled and slowly but surely we became a multy celled whatever, then much later by random chance or natural selection we became what, ( for sake of discussion) a fish? And weren’t we lucky that just by chance the group of cells next to us naturally selected themselves into the opposite sex of whatever we were so our species could live long enough to naturally select it self into the next step of our evolving. And weren’t we lucky that when we evolved every time there was an opposite sex whatever to natural select with us all the way till now. I am impressed by your faith.

  15. You have no idea what the theory of natural selection and the fossil and genetic record indicate, do you? There is no point in having a discussion with you if you don’t even know what the evidence claims. Without an understanding of what the evidence and theory actually say, your criticisms sound like an infant insisting that Santa is real.

  16. What dis cussion did we have you babble with out telling me anything you believe because you’re not sure what you believe. When you develope a backbone and a stance let me know.

  17. Dude…WTF? I’ve said unequivocally that I accpt evolution through natural selection as well as the so-called “big bang” theory. I’ve pointed out that your comments about such things demonstrate that you fail at understanding of these ideas.

    I believe, now, that you have either reading comprehension problems or you are really cognitively conflicted about this. That in additionwith you projecting you own lack of a clear belief (and understanding) are causing you to project your insecurities onto me.

    Please educate yourself some more.

  18. How does big bang translate into natural selection. You are basically telling me you believe we are decended from a single cell organism and the best organism won the lotto and became something else and then the winner of that lottery was given the privilege of moving up the chain and so on and so forth. Interesting enough that with all the millions and millions of years of this random natural selection thingy that there are none of the links between species still roaming the earth. So, when your species wins the natural selection lottery it automatically causes the in between, not just quite evolved enough candidates to vaporize? Amd there is still the whole ” i’m an evolved whatever, now where is another opposite sex whatever I am so’s we can get it on and start this crazy evolution lottery merry go round again. I hope natural selection left me one!” I assume this is just more projecting.
    Where did we come from? What do you believe? Mr. intellectual

  19. How does big bang translate into natural selection. You are basically telling me you believe we are decended from a single cell organism and the best organism won the lotto and became something else and then the winner of that lottery was given the privilege of moving up the chain and so on and so forth. Interesting enough that with all the millions and millions of years of this random natural selection thingy that there are none of the links between species still roaming the earth. So, when your species wins the natural selection lottery it automatically causes the in between, not just quite evolved enough candidates to vaporize? Amd there is still the whole ” i’m an evolved whatever, now where is another opposite sex whatever I am so’s we can get it on and start this crazy evolution lottery merry go round again. I hope natural selection left me one!” I assume this is just more projecting.
    Where did we come from? What do you believe? Mr. intellectual. You are arguing like a democrat.

  20. Max,

    Have you read anything I said?

    You don’t know what the theory is. You are attacking a straw-man. Please, I beg you, educate yourself.

  21. Still afraid to answer the question? Or you dont have an answer or you haven’t ever given it the time of day I imagine. Educate me Mr.Intellectual, I not asking what is the theory, I am asking what do you believe as far as how did man come to be. Your belief, you don’t believe in God, so what do you believe? What do you believe in, anything? Did everything just come to pass “Poof”, or did we come from the “primordial ooze” ? You are an atheist, but you have no opinion as to how the earth began or where man came from. Do you really believe that when you die it’s all over? I find that facinating that you do not feel anything special inside you that tells you there is more than just here and now. To look at the millions of things in this world from the grand canyon to the stars, from the way an egg is designed to aid the chick in it’s escape into this world. There are so many things that reflect the presence of a Creator ( whether you choose to believe in God or space aliens, but to say there is no Creator? Man that’s incredible, or sad maybe both. So one last time Mr. YOU SO SMART what do YOU believe.
    Luck o’ the draw, giant roulette wheel. what?

  22. For the last fucking time…

    I’m not afraid to answer your questions. It is not my responsibility to educate you. I’ve answered your questions already. You need to take responsibility for your own understanding and stop whining that I won’t sit you down and explain everything to you.

    I believe that the universe is natural, I don’t believe any gods exist. I don’t see any evidence for them. I believe that when we die that is it. I believe the Earth formed over billions of years due to processes that are too complex to explain here.

    It is not luck of any draw, it’s simply how things ended up. If they were any other way, that circumstance would be as likely as this one or any other. If you drop a deck of cards on the floor, pick them up without intending to put them in any particular order and they end up in some specific order (say the order they come in when they are sealed), then that outcome is as likely as any other order, only that particular one means something to you so it sticks out in your mind as being impossible without intent. A puddle is amazed to see that the hole in which it sits is perfectly shaped to fit it. You are missing the point.

    Seriously, educate yourself and stop blaminf me for not doing it for you.

  23. Oh! Sad little angry person you are. You see no evidence of God because you too tied up in your superiority complex. Little man? As I said you look at thing s as random but do not have the common sense to see that with out a designer you can drop that deck of cards 1000 to the 17th power and will never get the same stack.
    Oh, you sad hopeless little man. I guess I’d be angry too if I had no hope. Well, you may not believe in God, but He cares for you.

  24. never? really? How do you know that?
    I’m not angry, I’m annoyed at you though. Who said I have no hope? When did that come up?

  25. How can You have hope?

  26. Well, if you mean by ‘hope’ one of the three Christian virtues, that would be false hope. I believe that I can expect the best outcome to happen sometimes in situations. Why would I need a god for that?

    You seem to have a prejudice that people who don’t believe in god are just sad and miserable people. That simply is not true. Despite some non-preferable things that have happened recently in my life, I am happy. I enjoy my life and value it very highly. The fact that it is short and will end with death makes this short time I have more valuable. Carpe diem et noctis!

  27. No, that’s not the hope I mean. I mean what’s the use, you don’t have a soul, when it’s over it’s over. Why worry about the future it all ends the same. Why do you hang on the arcaic rules of society? Why not just do what you want, get what you can, can what you get and poison the rest. won’t that in crease your value quotient? What makes you think it’s a short time anyway, you could be a record holder in life span. As they say it,s not over till the fat lady sings. Carpe diem et noctis for eternity!

  28. I don’t hang onto rules because that are the rules, they are the tules because dome of them make sense.

    The fact that after this it’s over does not imply that it does not matter. It implies that everything here has more import. If there is an eternal afterlife, then this life is comparably insignificant.

    Because of this importance of this life, I value my life as well as the lives of those around me. If you would act as you request if you didn’t believe in heaven or hell (or any afterlife) then are you following the rules only out of fear of punishment or because it is the right thing to do?

  29. how could it matter? It’s all for nothing in the long run. What is there to value? There is no purpose, no reason for anything other than your own shelfish desires, limited only by those whom you personally place a value on. Yes, there is an afterlife and it does make this life comperably insignificant. You are an eternal being as am I and all those whose lives you value. That’s what makes them special. That’s what makes you special. You are an eternal being given a free will to accept or deny the existence of a God who created you. When you were a child your parents told you ” Don’t touch the stove, it’s hot!” Did you listen? No, you eventually touched the stove and found out what “hot” was. Now if I was to bring you an “expert ” in heat, heating and all things hot and he used all his charts and graphs to prove to you the stove was not hot when on, you still wouldn’t believe him would you? Well, i am looking from the stand point of the stove is hot and know with out a doubt there is a creator God. Call it foolishness, call it what you will, all your intellect and highbrow pomposity cannot diminish the knowledge I posses. I obey God to the best of my ability, and my ability is severely limited ,but it’s not about obeying the rules.

  30. There is all the beauty, fun, and relationships with other people to matter. We create our own meaning with what we care about. All desires are not selfish. Some of them are a combination of selfish and giving and others are generous. If YOUR desires are only selfish, then the problem may be with you. If that is the case, you need to stop projecting your own selfishness onto others universally.

    You claim to have some special knowledge about god and maybe the afterlife. I will call BS on you. You have a belief, I don’t doubt, but you cannot know. To claim that kind of knowledge would be epistemologically irresponsible and sophomoric.

    Call it what you will, but your assumptions and desires (selfish desires to know the truth and possibly to never die) does not make any of what you believe true. It is possible that you are deluded because you want it to be true, or are afraid of the implications of them not being true. It seems like you are afraid of meaninglessness, mortality, etc.

    It is not intellect that tells me that god does not exist. It is my lack of intellect that allows me to see that I can’t possibly know that there is, but I don’t see sufficient evidence to believe it.

  31. You choose to not believe in God because you don’t see evidence of God. Talk about sophomoric, the evidence is all around you, but you claim there is no evidence. There is all the beauty, fun, and relationships with other people to matter. The evidence of wanting more for a loved one, and doing what you can to prevent them from making the same mistakes you did or encouraging them to be more than they might think they could possibly be these are all reflections of God. You are so pious to call my experience B.S. that does not change anything it is just a vain attempt to try to belittle someone who believes in something that can’t be explained to your liking. This alll started with the question “What do you believe? You have yet to answer that which brings me to the conclusion you don’t know what you believe. You chose the stance “there is no God” you stand on that and and try to create doubt in anyone that believes otherwise. If you were to make a sincere effort to find God and accept him on His terms (He is God after all) you might find Him, or are you possibly the one who is afraid?

  32. “You choose to not believe in God because you don’t see evidence of God.”

    Yes, that is how it works. i don’t see evidence, thus I don’t believe. The evidence you point to does not point to god. All of those things could exist in a natural universe that had no god.

    I don’t see any point in continuing this conversation with you. I have answered your question several times now about what I believe, and you keep saying I have not. You are being disingenuous.

    For the last time, my stance is not “there is not god.” My stance is that you say there is and I don’t believe you. Do you believe in the invisible pink unicorn?

    I am not afraid. I would like to know if there is a god. God has either chosen to not reveal itself, does not want to, or does not exist. I am open to the question. How open are you? From what I have seen, even when someone clearly answers a question you say they haven’y. That comes off as close-minded to me.

    Take care, Max.

  33. If you truley wish to find God then Seek Him. He will reveal Himself to you.
    “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
    I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
    Jeremiah 29:13,14

    Goodluck,
    Shaunphilly

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