Atheist or agnostic?

14 Oct

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.

7 Responses to “Atheist or agnostic?”

  1. Wazaghun October 26, 2010 at 1:31 am #

    I think the real problem starts far earlier.
    It already starts with the idea that you have to actually label yourself as atheist.

    You do not run around and label yourself as all the things you are not. Never seen an “aTennisplayer” or a “arugbyfan”. You don’t run around saying your an “aMuslim” so why would you call yourself “atheist”.

    Historically this term has been (and in theistic realms still is) used in a negative way meaning far more and different things then merely the absence of believe in a god.

    One of the reasons why i normally don’t run around identifying myself as atheist. I rather have other people label themselves instead.

  2. godlesspaladin October 26, 2010 at 11:20 am #

    That’s a good point Wazaghun. However, I usually only mention my atheism if somebody else brings up religion. If someone else brought up how much they love to play tennis, I’d mention my a-tennis-ism. The term is useful for conveying the fact that I don’t hold a belief in gods. As for the negative connotations, I refuse to let theists control and frame the debate by twisting language. The same thing has happened with the word “liberal” in this country, and the Glenn Beck loonies are trying their damnedest to do the same thing to the word “socialist.” I feel it’s important for me to use that word because it then shows the people who come in contact with me that atheists are nice people and not baby eating monsters.

    But that is a good point about describing oneself by what you’re not. I think it’s partly due to the fact that belief to non-belief is so staggeringly one sided. Yet if people ask me what I do believe in, I say I’m a skeptic and a humanist.

  3. Mark A Warmington March 8, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    Very interesting post – as I’ve never actually looked beyond atheist or agnostic before.

    From childhood to adulthood I have transitioned from totally ignorant of anything relating to religion, to fervent belief in the supreme being, to questioning, to confusion, to doubt, to pragmatism, to all things scientific to – who says we aren’t talking about flip sides of the same coin?

    Always enjoy reading something that makes me stop and think..

  4. godlesspaladin March 9, 2011 at 12:24 am #

    Hey Mark, thanks for the comment!

  5. Mark James Wooding November 2, 2011 at 11:19 pm #

    I respectfully disagree with your distinction between atheism and agnosticism, although I think your analysis is very interesting. An agnostic, in the sense which I’ve understood it for the last few decades, is a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of a god (or gods).

    You mentioned two questions: whether one knows if god exists; and whether one believes that god exists.

    An atheist would answer “No” to the second question, whereas an agnostic would say that he neither believes nor disbelieves, he simply doesn’t know. He is without knowledge, and not having knowledge, he is without belief. There is no logical necessity for the answer to the second question to be only “Yes” or “No”. In my opinion, “I neither believe nor disbelieve” is a valid response. I don’t know that there is a god, so I don’t believe, but I also don’t know that there isn’t a god, so I don’t disbelieve.

  6. Louis Naughtic January 28, 2012 at 7:20 am #

    Straight outta Websters – a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god

    The first half is the old definition, the second the new. You assume a person has to choose between believing or disbelieving in a deity. Only fools believe, replace all your results with that word.

  7. Simple Theologian May 25, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    This is an interesting take on Atheism, Theism, and Agnostics.

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