One of the more superfluous debates going on within the atheist community has to do with the use of the term “agnostic.” When I hear someone say “I’m not an atheist, I’m an agnostic,” they usually do so because they’ve mis-defined both terms. Before I tell you how they’ve mis-defined these terms, let me ask two questions that are at the heart of this issue. With these two questions we can find out what you are.
Do you know whether or not god(s) exists? Yes or no. Do you believe god(s) exists? Yes or no.
If you answered yes to the first question then you’re a gnostic. If you answered no, then you’re agnostic. If you answered yes to the second question, then you’re a theist. If you answered no, then you’re an atheist.
This leaves us with four possibilities.
- Gnostic theist
- Gnostic atheist
- Agnostic theist
- Agnostic atheist
The first two, the gnostics, are intellectually dishonest. You may feel a strong gut emotion one way or the other, but there is no objectionable way you can know. Gnostic atheists are the irrational people who claim to know there is no god(s). The hypothetical person I mentioned earlier, who rejects the term “atheist” in favor of “agnostic”, is making the mistake of defining “atheist” as “gnostic atheist.” They recognize that they can’t know for certain whether or not god(s) exist, so they say “agnostic”, entirely forgetting the second question.
Agnostic and atheist are not two different viewpoints; they are separate answers to separate questions.
I’m not really sure a pure agnostic could exist. The first question is pretty cut and dry; I have a hard time imagining someone saying “I don’t know” in response. As for the second question, I guess the only time one could say “I don’t know” in response would be while they are in transition between yes or no. If you’re losing your faith, or gaining a new one, then I could see someone temporarily being in a state of either gnostic agnosticism or agnostic agnosticism. Most of the time, however, this is not what the person claiming to be an agnostic really means.