• Agnosticism is untenable and irrelevant, part 1.

    This writing is about why agnosticism is intellectually indefensible, and its mindspace competitor strong atheism is the most reasonable perspective. Frankly, there’s so much wrong with agnosticism I have to split into at least two posts. Unless you’re new to unbelief, you probably think you’ve heard every argument about agnosticism vs atheism (hereafter AvA): I promise in this part or part 2 you will read arguments or rationale that you’ve not seen articulated previously. This may be interesting for another reason: I am living dangerously by engaging in armchair philosophy on a network chock full of philosopher heavyweights who will be glad to swoop in and correct me. My hope is that they do so as necessary. I am not a professional, as they are, but these are topics I have been discussing and debating for about 20 years.

    Caveats and definitions
    This is not a primer on agnosticism. Please read a wiki if you are unacquainted. For the purposes of this writing, “agnostic” means someone who believes the god question cannot be answered, or else someone who has merely not been persuaded by evidence for or against the existence of god. “God” here means the god hypothesis, and refers to any transcendentally powerful creator being which people have sincerely believed in (no game-playing allowed). There may be other definitions of “god” or “God”, but they are not what I shall write about here.

    I. The belief-knowledge false dichotomy

    Agnostics often say that we can believe in a god (or disbelieve), but we can’t have knowledge there is or isn’t one. We shall set aside the obvious objection that if one existed, a God might pay us a visit and say hello, I am the creator! I think agnostics know that and discard it because it has never happened and is, prima facie, unlikely. So we have beliefs and knowledge. What do these words mean? In AvA discussions, belief is taken to be something we can’t prove or may not have evidence for; knowledge is a proposition which a rational observer is forced to accept by way of direct evidence or compelling argument. The agnostic tends to insist that knowledge and belief are categorically different. So different, they need to be put on different axes:

    Except that they aren’t. Is there anything you would say that you know to be true, but do not believe to be? Why not? Aren’t knowledge and belief separate?  The set of things we call knowledge is a subset of the things we call beliefs. What differentiates the two is merely the degree to which we should collectively be confident that it is correct. What we have is not two axes, but a single continuum of confidence. Often, individual ideas slide back and forth as our understanding advances.

    The Higgs Boson was just a belief a year or ten ago, but today or very soon it will be knowledge. In 1900, the idea that the continents are fixed in their positions and do not move was knowledge, and supported as such by the world’s leading geologists. Today, the idea is a mere belief, an incorrect one. What establishes a proposition as knowledge? That is to say, justified and true? The short answer is, no one knows. There simply is no hard-and-fast way to tell. Science proceeds on the reliability of knowledge, the assumption what was true through the yesterdays will be true through the tomorrows, but the conclusion remains provisional, not decisive.

    In science, we can make judgement calls based on standards of evidence, but plenty of propositions exist outside of what science can examine, such as one-of events. What if I witnessed the real killer of John F Kennedy but have no physical evidence? Would you really tell me that I “believe” it but do not “know” what I saw with my own eyes, merely because it can’t be proven in a laboratory? Alternately perhaps you would say I can know it but that you cannot. Fair enough, but isn’t it strange that there is absolutely no means, even in theory, to decide whether that proposition is knowledge or belief? Not if we understand the distinction is actually an arbitrary, if useful, one.

    So it is, the two words are just ways of expressing how sure we are about the veracity of a proposition. The chart collapses, and the remaining axis is “confidence”. Qualms about why we should or should not be confident are accessory, the same as any two opposed positions.

    II. Thomas Huxley: a deity late, an Allah short

    The word “agnosticism” was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869. This means that millennia of philosophical thought progressed without the need for a word for this position, including the entire Enlightenment period. Philosopher icons from Socrates to Spinoza, to Hume never uttered the word- not even the biggest contributors to the philosophy of theology and atheism. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying people prior to 1869 did not fit the definition of “agnostic”- they surely did. But the big guys who tried to prove God by argument like Anselm and Descartes and big skeptical thinkers like Hume and Kant never once needed the term. The Greek word for atheist, conversely, is at least 2500 years old. This isn’t proof of much, but it is a rather curious fact.

    Coming up in part 2: paradoxes, pretentiousness, and special pleading.

     

    Category: philosophysecularism

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is a bioanthropology graduate student at UCLA, cofounder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.

    5 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Achrachno

      What is the transcendentally powerful thing that supposedly creates? Until we know that, we can neither affirm nor deny that it exists. The word “God” remains undefined and thus god talk is simply meaningless. Theobabble.

      My contention is simply that I don’t know what theists are talking about, and furthermore I’m sure that they have no idea either. I’m a hard core agnostic. I don’t know, and neither does anyone else as far as I can tell.

      The god question cannot be answered because it is incoherent and there is simply no rational question there. Nothing can be observed or tested. No results will ever appear, positive or negative.

      That said, I have no belief in “God”, anymore than I do in bloofernooze, and thus am an atheist in that sense. Theism, as we have it, is obviously ridiculous.

      • Edward Clint

        You’re describing ignosticism, Achrachno, a perspective I find highly persuasive as well. I can see we’re in agreement on the irrelevancy part of my thesis.

        I don’t fully agree that the god question can’t be answered. You said that theism is “ridiculous”. I would posit that when we look closely at why this is true (and verily, it is) we find out that “theism is ridiculous” is semantically identical to “theism is false”. I will argue for that point in the next part.

    • Seymour

      You make some common comments, but I remain unconvinced and will remain agnostic as to the relevancy and tenability od being agnostic vis-a-vis God

      • Edward Clint

        I think you will be more interested in the next part.

    • Achrachno

      We probably do mostly agree, but I do not agree that meaningless = false. Meaningless = “not even false” (a worse condition). To be false a claim must be at least testable. The statement “Bloofernooze exists” is not false, it’s just meaningless (until someone gives a definition).

      To go back to one of your statements: “God” here means the god hypothesis”

      I don’t believe there is a “God hypothesis” because there is no idea there with either test or logical implications. Religion is not ridiculous because it’s false, it’s ridiculous because people sincerely “believe” strings of words that carry no meaning. They have faith that the words mean something and that whatever they mean is also a true description of reality.

      Lots of ideas manage to be false without being ridiculous. On the frontiers of scientific knowledge there are lots of things we believe which later experience will show to have been false. That’s why scientific ideas are often altered. But these “future false” ideas are believed based on the best available evidence now, and so are not ridiculous even though (if only we knew!) false. The ether seemed like a reasonable idea at the time, and even now is not usually considered ridiculous, even though clearly false. It was testable, was tested, and shown to be incorrect and then abandoned. God is not like ether.

      • Edward Clint

        Wouldn’t you agree though, that a meaningless statement is excluded from being factual or correct? In ordinary english a non-factual claim is by definition not true. Any not-true claim is a false claim. Why it’s false is interesting, but changes none of this.

        Also on the outset it’s often not clear, even in science, how coherent and concrete an hypothesis should be. Cognitive scientists talk about hypothetical mental mechanisms involved in things like perception or memory. They say, for example, that people mentally rotate an image to figure out if it’s left-handed or right-handed (i.e. if a letter is backwards or not). But when you ask them, wait WHAT precisely is doing the rotating? what exactly is being rotated? They don’t know, and most of them don’t try to know because that isn’t their field. Is the entire body of cognitive science research meaningless?

        • Achrachno

          “Wouldn’t you agree though, that a meaningless statement is excluded from being factual or correct? ”

          Yes, but it likewise is excluded from being false or incorrect. Lacking meaning, it cannot be evaluated for factuality.

          Blibber booshak bip. Meaningless. Neither true nor false. Sounds signifying nothing. God — pretty much the same story, IMO.

          Thus, hard core agnosticism is the only reasonable position! :-)

    • xtog42

      I am not sure your article supports your title.

      You appear to say that the belief/knowledge distinction somehow supports your title when viewed as degrees of confidence — with apologies I simply do not see the connection between the distinction you make between those two words and the stance that agnosticism is untenable, lacking in intellectual support and irrelevant.

      Untenable? Suspending judgement on the God hypothesis is as tenable as atheism. I could make the same argument about deism, theism, and atheism. I could easily make the argument that agnosticism is the only tenable stance of the three, despite the points you made above — deism, theism, and atheism are stances that propose knowledge — agnosticism proposes suspension of judgement, or skepticism, in that nothing we humans can ever do or think can ever be verified by some unbiased outside source. Hume himself IMO would agree with me on this one I presume.

      Intellectually unsupportable? This begs the epistemological question again, and until we have universal standards for what we all say “We know” we can even give the flying spaghetti monster intellectual support. For those of us skeptics who believe Truth is something we as lowly humans have no way of ever attaining it is the atheist, deist and theist who are positing intellectually insupportable ideas. When you are having a vivid dream do you Know that is is not real? When you are awake do you Know you are not just having a vivid dream?

      Irrelevant? Just because the term agnosticism wasn’t used in the past does not make it irrelevant. When false dichotomies are broken down third ways are found. Read the Greek skeptics and tell me again that agnosticism has no relevancy. You seem to place a great deal of importance on the use of the word agnostic, by saying “Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying people prior to 1869 did not fit the definition of “agnostic”- they surely did. But the big guys who tried to prove God by argument like Anselm and Descartes and big skeptical thinkers like Hume and Kant never once needed the term.” In making that concession you totally lose your point.

      Let’s face it theism, deism, atheism and agnosticism were all born together whether those specific words were used by the people having those thoughts or not. Saying that agnosticism is somehow irrelevant, intellectually unsupportable, and untenable sounds a lot like a Republican and a Democrat saying that an independent voter is somehow irrelevant, intellectually unsupportable and untenable and it is no more true of politics than it is of theology.

      I’m hoping that in your next post you are more clear on precisely how agnosticism is unsupportable, irrelevant and untenable, because IMHO agnosticism is the skeptical way — so you appear to be bashing skepticism with this post. Maybe you could respond to Bertrand Russell’s comments on this issue since he has said things like this

      “Russell wavered between calling himself an agnostic and describing himself as an atheist. He evidently did not attach too much importance to this distinction, but he made it clear that if he was to be classified as an agnostic, it would have to be in a sense in which an agnostic and an atheist are “for practical purposes, at one.”

      “The interviewer asked Russell, “Do you think it is certain that there is no such thing as God or simply that it is just not proven?” “No,” Russell answered, “I don’t think it is certain there is no such thing — I think it is on exactly the same level as the Olympic gods, or the Norwegian gods; they also may exist, the gods of Olympus and Valhalla. I can’t prove they don’t, but I think that the Christian God has no more likelihood than they had. I think they are a bare possibility.”

      He explained his views more fully in an interview published in Look magazine in 1953. An agnostic, in any sense in which he can be regarded as one, Russell said, “may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice.”

      I feel the same way. On a scale of 1-100 with 1 being a total theist and 100 being an atheist,….an agnostic might place themselves at 98 or 99 on that scale,…so if an agnostic has ideas that are unsupportable, untenable, and irrelevant,….what does that say about atheism? And with the two stances being so totally close to each other in both practice and theory how can one be considered intellectually unsupportable, irrelevant and untenable and the other be the “most reasonable” alternative? I guess it depends on what you mean by the word “reason”.

      You’ll also of course what to deal with what Dawkins has said on this issue.

      “He said: ‘On a scale of seven, where one means I know he exists, and seven I know he doesn’t, I call myself a six.’ Professor Dawkins went on to say he believed was a ‘6.9’, stating: ‘That doesn’t mean I’m absolutely confident, that I absolutely know, because I don’t.’

      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2105834/Career-atheist-Richard-Dawkins-admits-fact-agnostic.html

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_theistic_probability

      • Edward Clint

        Hello Xtog! Thanks for you comments, yours is just the sort of thoughtful agnostic perspective I wish to address. You’ve made many points here and I will just answer a couple in the interest of brevity and because I will expand on these in the next part.

        …with apologies I simply do not see the connection between the distinction you make between those two words and the stance that agnosticism is untenable, lacking in intellectual support and irrelevant.

        Agnosticism is predicated on the importance of those things being separate. If they are not, then the label has no content because it subsumed by existing labels. That is the point I was trying to make. This is also why there are no agdemocrats insisting that the ultimate ideal political theory can’t be known, or agrepublicans etc.., or ag any of a bajillion other polar labels.

        …deism, theism, and atheism are stances that propose knowledge — agnosticism proposes suspension of judgement, or skepticism,

        Actually, this is incorrect in at least two ways. Agnostics in fact do propose knowledge: there is no method of inquiry, and no existent evidence sufficient to compel the total rejection of theism. This is a very strong, and very indefensible claim about what methods of inquiry and evidence exist and are capable of. Second, none of these isms proposes a suspension of judgement. the agnostic merely says after judging the available epistemological avenues, we find the evidence uncompelling. Well, guess what, that’s a judgement. The atheist is not a whit less informed by skepticism (necessarily): she merely says, we find the evidence is adequately compelling. Now one of these two is incorrect; but you’ve provided zero basis for the claim that one is somehow “more” skeptical than the other. Skepticism is not denying any conclusion, it’s demanding good evidence prior to doing so, which I argue that I have, as an atheist.

        re: Russell’s remarks.
        The quote favors my position much more strongly than yours, whether Russell would agree or not. It hinges on us saying, with a straight face, that lightning-hurling Zeus is, in fact, not nonsense. I believe that were I to ask random people on the street or among my university faculty if they would agree the notion was nonsense, they would agree. The silliness we feel at making the contrary remark should be a red flag that something has gone wrong.

        re: Dawkins
        Dawkins is wrong. He is making an understandable thinking error owed to cognitive scale blindness. This is no great criticism of Dawkins because he’s a biologist and not a philosopher. The philosophy in The God Delusion is a bit 101, to put it kindly. That’s fine, because the book is clearly written for the lay person and it’s very readable.

        Also, elsewhere Dawkins makes it very clear that he isn’t agnostic about everything. He calls people who reject evolution “mad” or ignorant, even those who just want there to be a sliver of doubt that evolution is correct. When it comes to biology, Dawkins is a strong evolutionist. When it comes to philosophy, he’s a weak atheist. Now you’re thinking, well there is evidence for one and not the other but that isn’t my point: if we can, in principle, be sooooo very sure of a proposition.. then we can be just as sure of another, evidence withstanding. Well, according to Dawkins that is.

        • xtog42

          Hey Edward, sorry for the late response,…

          Let me challenge you on some of your replies, while at the same time being very appreciative that you didn’t take my comments as a personal attack (something that I got used to over at FTB and that I feel will be SB’s major selling point)

          In your first comment you say, “Agnosticism is predicated on the importance of those things being separate.”

          I do not see why you think this is the case. I can have gray standards for the difference between the meaning of the words belief and knowledge, and yet still take the position that the wisest stance on the existence of God is a suspension of judgment. I always hold my wallet when people state things like,…..X is based on this, or Y has a foundation of that, because the mechanical connection is rarely distinguishable so the argument comes down to a matter of opinion or taste as opposed to factual evidence-based.

          Next you write, “Agnostics in fact do propose knowledge: there is no method of inquiry, and no existent evidence sufficient to compel the total rejection of theism.”

          Agnostics do not have to do either thing. I may simply take the stance that the definition of God is simply self-contradictory as proposed by believers, or I may just be a skeptical in that while I will admit to valid methods of inquiry, and the possibility of sufficient evidence, I may just be unwilling to pass a judgment on the issue at this point in time. As Russell said,…the existence of God is possible, but not probable,….and I cannot prove that it does not exist (since proving a negative is logically impossible),…ipso facto I am agnostic, not atheist. And that position is certainly not untenable nor irrelevant which is what your post claims to be about.

          And just because I make the judgment that the existence of God cannot be disproved, does not mean I am proposing that I have knowledge. When Socrates said that the only thing he knew what that he knew nothing,…was he proposing knowledge? If so, it was the absolute most minimal kind of knowledge ever imaginable.

          Next in my opinion you misrepresent agnosticism again by writing,…”the agnostic merely says after judging the available epistemological avenues, we find the evidence uncompelling.” Maybe some do, but it is not necessary to say that and be an agnostic,…I may simply say that since you cannot disprove of an existing God, I am agnostic, not atheist – this is precisely the point Russell was making with his teapot analogy.

          On Russell: He could most certainly say Zeus is nonsense, at the same time admit Zeus’ possibility, in fact he does this in the quote I offered.

          On Dawkins: You appear to just state he is wrong with no argumentation offered. “Cognitive scale blindness”? While I only have a minor in philosophy, I do have a masters degree in psychology, and nothing in my psych education can help me understand your criticism here.

          And just because Dawkins is not agnostic about the efficacy of evolution, does not require him to be agnostic towards God’s potential existence, after all evolution is something that is clearly defined, God is not,….evolution is something which evidence can be discovered and evaluated, but the existence of God is not. The cosmos whether God is or is not could look exactly the same to the observing scientist. In the same way someone can be a skeptic and yet take the position that knowledge is possible, someone can be an agnostic on the issue of God, and yet not be agnostic on knowledge concerning other things – like knowing whether or not you are currently awake or having a vivid dream.

          I’ll finish by just repeating my scale point,….that being at 98 or 99 on the “Does God exist scale” where atheists are at 100 does not make one’s view untenable, irrelevant or intellectually unsupportable – for all practical purposes I presume most agnostics are atheists, just not absolute about it, and there is nothing untenable or intellectually unsupportable about that, nor are agnostics irrelevant – in fact I would make the case that it is agnostics who are in the best position to influence our God-believing brothers and sisters to change their short-sighted wishful-thinking ways.

          • Jonathan MS Pearce

            It would be wonderful if SBs stood for honest discussion (stimulating banter?) such that we can all expect to be given a reasonable voice, and be treated with respect deserved. That is what I hope to achieve, and I’m sure we all do here.

            A Tippling Philosopher

    • Ed

      “but the conclusion remains provincial, not decisive.”

      Do you mean “provisional”?

      • Edward Clint

        Yes, thanks Ed!

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Hi Ed
      For what it’s worth, my tuppence.

      I label myself an agnostic atheist. I do this because I am logically agnostic (I can no more disprove God than prove it) but am probabilistically atheist, such that my calculations of probability would balance in favour of there being no God.

      Now, the criticism of this is that all knowledge other than the cogito ergo sum requires us to not be 100% certain, such that we are technically agnostic on just about everything, but we don’t bother elucidating that idea. Why choose to be different here?

      My answer to that would be to highlight the idea that both positions (theist and atheist) require an amount of faith (as does every position),though belief in God may require an awful lot more. I don’t want to be seen as someone who attacks theists for their faith and then retreats to a similar position of faith. I also want to recognise that I could just be wrong about some key aspects of philosophy – kind of a position of humility.

      However, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist.

      This may also require a definition of atheism. I am in the strong or positive atheist camp which understands atheism as a positive belief (in a negative). In other words, one believes the proposition that “there is no God” to have a truth value. That is why we spend so much time writing about it. If it was just a “lack of belief in God” as many atheists like to claim, then they wouldn’t so vociferously deny God’s existence.

      I know the definition of atheism splits atheists down the middle, but I think it is vital for your argument here. I think you need to define atheism in order to declare that agnosticism is irrelevant (comparatively).

      But in some ways it is all splitting hairs because it is a label for a person who uses the same arguments, and it is the arguments that are important.

      Let me know if I am spouting bollocks though.

      • xtog42

        The negative atheist label fits me better. Taking a stance on predicates to a thing called God,…is akin to taking a stance on whether there exists a black white. The definitions of God that are most common are self-contradictory, so if I don’t even know what you are talking about, how can I take a positive stance on it?

      • Edward Clint

        Now, the criticism of this is that all knowledge other than the cogito ergo sum requires us to not be 100% certain, such that we are technically agnostic on just about everything, but we don’t bother elucidating that idea. Why choose to be different here?

        This is the essence of my allegation of the irrelevance of agnosticism. Reminding ourselves that nothing is 100% certain changes nothing about the likelihood of any given proposition. It rules nothing out, it suggests no truths. It is simply intellectually irrelevant to any consideration.

        My answer to that would be to highlight the idea that both positions (theist and atheist) require an amount of faith (as does every position),though belief in God may require an awful lot more. I don’t want to be seen as someone who attacks theists for their faith and then retreats to a similar position of faith.

        Now here I must disagree. Faith, in the sense of dependence on revealed truth, is not required for atheism, nor is “faith” in the sense of holding a proposition correct without evidence.

    • Jonathan MS Pearce

      Addendum

      All in all, though, the usefulness of calling myself an agnostic atheist is minimal, and oftentimes don’t mention it.

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    • Jason Clark

      “The agnostic tends to insist that knowledge and belief are categorically different.”

      Nope. Self described agnostics (just agnostic), use a broad definition of agnosticism. It was atheists, like George H Smith that pushed this 2 axis 4 position nonsense. It’s those who first self describe as atheist, mostly, that do things that way.

      “This means that millennia of philosophical thought progressed without the need for a word for this position, including the entire Enlightenment period.”

      In the 18th century, you will find D’Holbach writing about how the majority theists use their narrow definition “atheist” label on plenty of people improperly. He argued these non-believers were mislabelled. He argued they weren’t atheists. The narrow definition of atheism was the common definition of atheism, by a long shot.

      “Hume never uttered the word”

      No. But there is a story of him visiting D’Holbach in Paris. Hume told D’Holbach that he didn’t think there was such a thing as real atheist. D’Holbach told Hume that many of his guests were, and that a few others hadn’t made up their minds yet.

      “The Greek word for atheist, conversely, is at least 2500 years old”

      There was no Greek word “atheist”.

      The French grabbed “atheos” (no/not/without gods) out of Greek antiquity, and slapped an “iste” (someone who believes, a believer) on the end. Whatever common usage definition you find for “atheist”, you will find the root word (all possible prefixes and suffixes removed) is “atheos”. The “a” is a permanent attachment, the “ist” is a suffix. The French did this almost a century before the word “theos” was grabbed from Greek antiquity, and an “ist” slapped on the end of it, too. There was no word “theist” to slap an “a” prefix on.

      Anyone using a broad definition was in a very tiny minority. The broad definition was not in common usage, or even common knowledge. So, yes, there was a need for a word to describe those who neither believed “gods exist” nor believed “gods do not exist”. D’Holbach didn’t have a word for these people. Huxley complained, before coming up with “agnosticism” about there being no word for non belief, and being lumped in with the atheists, whom he thought were pseudo-scientists. Huxley came up with that word.

      “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” ~ Thomas Huxley

      His agnosticism amounted to a form of demarcation. No evidence = untestable, unfalsifiable = unscientific and inconclusive. Popper was an agnostic too. This is not compatible with having a belief.

      Athe(os)-ist = someone who believes “gods do not exist”
      Agnostic = someone who doesn’t believe “gods exist” or “gods do not exist”
      The(os)-ist = someone who believes “gods exist”

      It caught on in a big way. A number of writers, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, wrote about the “age of agnosticism”.

      In the 1960s, George H Smith came along. He admitted to those definitions being common usage. He promoted the idea of popularizing a broader definition of “atheist”. He then gutted the definition of “agnostic” and pushed that “agnostic atheist”, “agnostic theist”, nonsense.

      It hadn’t fully caught on, by the 1980s. Then, you will find Antony Flew coming along and also pushing to broaden the definition of “atheist”. He states:

      “The introduction of this new interpretation of the word ‘atheism’ may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage.”

      Seriously, if you’re going to take on agnosticism, at least try to have some kind of idea what you’re talking about, first. You’re clueless.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

        Seriously, if you’re going to take on agnosticism, at least try to have some kind of idea what you’re talking about, first. You’re clueless.

        If I am clueless, you’ve made it look quite difficult indeed to prove. Since you are dispensing unsolicited personal advice, I am sure you won’t mind some in return: it’s prudent not to let personal feelings intrude in technical discussions.

        Also, personal insults are not appropriate here. If it is too much to ask that you refrain, then you should look for debate elsewhere. Now, down to brass tacks.

        Nope. Self described agnostics (just agnostic), use a broad definition of agnosticism. It was atheists, like George H Smith that pushed this 2 axis 4 position nonsense. It’s those who first self describe as atheist, mostly, that do things that way.

        This is not my experience at all. I have had the knowledge vs. belief argument and table cited by agnostics to me literally hundreds of different times over the course of 25 years. Unless you are claiming I have not had those experiences, I reject your argument. One handy example is this ELI5 discussion where the top comments recapitulate this belief/knowledge trope: https://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/3209wr/eli5_the_difference_between_athiest_agnostic_and/

        I also think it is incoherent to say “atheists like [Smith]” did this. Who the “atheists” are is not coherent because that is a bone of contention and there is no clear and ready division socially, culturally, or intellectually between the “atheists” and the “agnostics”. This treads close to tribalistic othering, to my ears.

        Re: D’Holbach and mislabelling of atheists. I don’t disagree. “Atheist” was essentially a general purpose slur, much people said “godless commie” during the cold war. I just don’t know what this point has to do with anything. Perhaps you think I said nobody would have rightly been described as agnostic prior to Huxley. I did not.

        re: the antiquity of the word atheist, my sources disagree with you.

        The online etymology dictionary:

        from Greek atheos “without god, denying the gods; abandoned of the gods; godless, ungodly” (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=atheist)

        And defineatheism.com:
        An extended usage was applied just prior to c. 500 BCE to characterize “atheism” as a position that specifically opposed the existence of deities.
        (http://www.defineatheism.com/etymology.pl)

        But your objection seems more about the -ist part not the -ism. I have no idea why this matters to you. Let’s say that’s right. And? There’s then a precedent for the concept of godless or against/without god, but not a concept of agnosticism. The -ist is just the idea made into a conventional description of a person. But this series is really about the concept itself, not people who hold forth the concept or don’t.

        Any way you want to look at it “godless” as a concept is ancient, and so necessary to discourse as to have its vocabulary. “Agnostic” did not, until rather recently.

        Re: Hume & D’Holbach. OK. And the relevance of this story is what?

        Re: Huxley and demarcation

        This post isn’t really about what Huxley’s perspective was. That’s history, but things change (and even if they didn’t I find much fault with Huxley’s overzealous “demarcation”). Today it just ain’t so that agnosticism is rigorous epistemology applied to theology. I would have no problem with that, but it isn’t the argument I have had to have, over and over.

        Athe(os)-ist = someone who believes “gods do not exist”
        Agnostic = someone who doesn’t believe “gods exist” or “gods do not exist”
        The(os)-ist = someone who believes “gods exist”

        The problem here is that the terms “someone who believes ‘gods do not exist'” and “someone who doesn’t believe ‘gods exist'” are logically interchangeable. That is: ¬(¬A) ⇔ A. This is a problem because it makes the agnostic a de facto atheist. The two can only be made distinct if you start making the verb “believe” do extra duty above and beyond its ordinary meaning. Smith, or whomever, I have no idea who came up with this exactly, tried to spell out how that works, probably based on contemporary agnostics he knew of. And that seemed to resonate with at least this generation of people who call themselves agnostics.

        After urging the government to teach intelligent design in schools, I really don’t see Antony Flew as any sort of authority here. I don’t mean his bad ideas make him always wrong, but there are much better philosophers to cite.

        • Jason Clark

          //Since you are dispensing unsolicited personal advice, I am sure you won’t mind some in return: it’s prudent not to let personal feelings intrude in technical discussions.//

          What does “pretentious”, trying to pass agnostics off as dishonest, etc., have to do with a technical discussion? You seem to be discussing “agnostic atheists”, not “agnostics”, if you’d like to talk about dishonesty.

          //One handy example is this ELI5 discussion where the top comments recapitulate this belief/knowledge trope//

          Well, for one, that was asking people’s opinions. Hardly anyone announced exactly what they were, they just offered their opinions on the matter. So, how that’s evidence of agnostics, rather than atheists, doing it, I’m not sure.

          You seem to be counting anyone that uses the “agnostic atheist” type terminology to be agnostics. I consider them atheists. They first divide theists and atheists by a question of belief, and consider themselves atheists, first. It’s those who self-describe as atheists first that tend to use the broad definition of atheism and the narrow definition of agnosticism.

          Someone who self describes as just an agnostic, doesn’t need all that other nonsense, so to claim “agnostics” use it is somewhat dishonest. It’s atheists using it as a qualifying word. The “agnostics” on that thread are likely the ones saying atheists believe gods don’t exist, and agnostics don’t believe either.

          //I just don’t know what this point has to do with anything.//

          D’Holbach was arguing against the narrow definition in common usage, during the 18th century, not just against an insult.

          //re: the antiquity of the word atheist, my sources disagree with you.//

          Ummm, no…they don’t. There is no personhood in the ancient Greek “atheos”. Personhood is attached to the “ist”, added by French and English. In ancient Greek someone could be “atheos”, they couldn’t be an “atheos”. The words “theos” + “ist” and “atheos” + “ist”, were created the exact same way.

          “atheist (n.)

          1570s, from French athéiste (16c.), from Greek atheos “without god, denying the gods; abandoned of the gods; godless, ungodly,” from a- “without” + theos “a god” (see theo-).”

          From the Greek word “atheos”, to which the French added an “iste” on the end. And, they did it almost a century before the English did the same with the ancient Greek word “theos”. There was no word “theist” to attach an “a-” prefix to.

          “theist (n.)

          1660s, from Greek theos “god” (see theo-) + -ist. The original senses was that later reserved to deist: “one who believes in a transcendent god but denies revelation.” Later in 18c. theist was contrasted with deist, as believing in a personal God and allowing the possibility of revelation.”

          “Theist” =/= “god”. “Atheist” =/= “without god”. “Theos” = “god”. “Atheos” = “without god”. “-ist” = “someone who believes”. “Theist” = “someone who believes gods exist”. “Atheist” = “someone who believes we are without gods…no gods exist”.

          //But your objection seems more about the -ist part not the -ism.//

          “Atheos” (no/not/without gods) + “ism” (a belief system, or doctrine) = “the doctrine or belief that we are without gods…no gods exist”. A-theism isn’t an “ism”. It’s specifically not an “ism”. Broad definition a-theists sure have a lot of opinions, for not having a philosophy.

          //But this series is really about the concept itself, not people who hold forth the concept or don’t.//

          And, I’m trying to direct you to an agnostic’s concept of agnosticism, not the atheists’ concept of agnosticism, if you’re going to write about “agnosticism”. An “agnostic atheist” arguing with a “gnostic atheist”, are two atheists arguing, not an agnostic and an atheist.

          //Smith, or whomever, I have no idea who came up with this exactly, tried to spell out how that works, probably based on contemporary agnostics he knew of.//

          No. He quoted Huxley directly, but to make agnosticism different from the broader definition of atheism, that he was pushing, he butchered Huxley’s version of agnosticism, contradicting Huxley quotes immediately after giving them, and introduced the “agnostic atheist” and “agnostic theist” nonsense.

          As an atheist of his time, 1960s, he described himself as introducing something newish. He admitted the common usage definition of “atheist”, at the time, was the narrow one. He admitted the common usage definition of “agnostic”, at the time, was between narrow atheism and theism. He was a narrow definition atheist himself, but apparently wanted to incorporate the “no burden of proof” Huxley position into “atheism”.

          //I really don’t see Antony Flew as any sort of authority here//

          The point is he was an atheist of the period, and he still considered the broad definition to be something newish, and thought that most people would see it as something vastly different than the common usage of the time, in the 1980s.

          The popularization of the broader definition is something newish, in the past 30-50 years. Many, if not most, dictionaries still use the narrow definition.

          //The problem here is that the terms “someone who believes ‘gods do not exist'” and “someone who doesn’t believe ‘gods exist'” are logically interchangeable.//

          Something else that’s dishonest, is asking one belief question, when you know for a fact there is a counter proposition, that people will have beliefs about, too. It’s an error to label the answers to the questions, instead of answering all the necessary questions, and then labelling the results.

          Do you believe “gods exist”?

          Y (u:A)
          N (~u:A)

          Do you believe “gods do not exist”?

          Y (u:~A)
          N (~u:~A)

          (YN) The(os)-ist (u:A | ~u:~A)
          (NN) Agnostic (~u:A | ~u:~A)
          (NY) Athe(os)-ist (~u:A | u:~A)

          (YY) Incompatible (u:A | u:~A)

          If your “logic” says that agnostics (weak/negative atheists) = atheists (strong/positive atheists), then you’re doing logic wrong. If you have babies popping out believing gods do not exist, rather than not believing gods exist, then you’re doing logic wrong.

          Adding questions of “knowledge” gets you 5 positions:

          Do you “know” “gods exist”?

          Y
          N

          Do you “know” “gods do not exist”?

          Y
          N

          (YNYN) Theo(s)-gnostic
          (YNNN) The(os)-ist
          (NNNN) Agnostic
          (NYNN) Athe(os)-ist
          (NYNY) Athe(os)-gnostic

          Or, using the broad definition of “atheist” and narrow definition of “agnostic”:

          Gnostic theist
          Agnostic theist
          Agnostic weak/negative atheist
          Agnostic strong/positive atheist
          Gnostic strong/positive atheist

          ^The push to popularize the broader definition of atheism, is hijacking the middle and claiming an excluded middle, which is dishonest. The “weak/negative” is called that specifically because they don’t believe the “strong/positive” claim, any more than the theist’s claim.

          //This post isn’t really about what Huxley’s perspective was. That’s history, but things change (and even if they didn’t I find much fault with Huxley’s overzealous “demarcation”). Today it just ain’t so that agnosticism is rigorous epistemology applied to theology.//

          If you’re discussing “agnostics” and “agnosticism”, you seem to be giving a dishonest view of them. Your actually discussing atheists who use the agnostic label as a qualifier, not agnostics.

          The broad definitions is still in dictionaries, it is in plenty of philosophy books. In polls, where people are given the option between the two labels, agnostics are still the larger group. Agnostics just tend not to organize under the banner “We don’t know! We don’t care!”.

          They care enough to give themselves a label, which is only somewhat more than the largest group of non-believers that considers themselves nothing in particular.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

            I warned you to not to be insulting. You’ve called me clueless, and then dishonest. It seems like you have a great wealth of knowledge. We could potentially have had a constructive conversation. It’s too bad that you are unable to compose yourself with more civility.

            If you are so certain your position is correct and supported in evidence, you ought not to feel you need to insult the person you are speaking to. In spite of your poor behavior, I have not insulted you. Such aggression, yours or mine, serves no good purpose and I will not abide it. You are unwelcome on this site, I will thank you not to comment again.

            • Jason Clark

              //I have not insulted you.//

              Maybe reread your article. I’m an “agnostic”, just “agnostic”. What your article refers to is “agnostic atheists” and “agnostic atheism”, not “agnostics” and “agnosticism”. It even says so on the flawed 2 axis, 4 position, image you’ve got there. There are no “agnostics”, just “agnostics”, doing things that way. And, the first step in using the narrow definition of “agnostic” is using the broader definition of “atheist”, which you also seem to be promoting. So, you’re only encouraging it, yourself.

        • Jason Clark

          //Huxley’s overzealous “demarcation”//

          His overzealous demarcation? You either have evidence or you don’t. No evidence = untestable and unfasifiable = unscientific and inconclusive. Karl Popper was a self-described agnostic, as well….just agnostic.

          “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” ~ Huxley

          “The extent of the region of the uncertain, the number of the problems the investigation of which ends in a verdict of not proven, will vary according to the knowledge and the intellectual habits of the individual Agnostic. I do not very much care to speak of anything as “unknowable.” What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by any one else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case. Relatively to myself, I am quite sure that the region of uncertainty–the nebulous country in which words play the part of realities –is far more extensive than I could wish.” ~ Huxley

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoscience#Falsifiability

          http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Pseudoscience#Unfalsifiable_ideas

          • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

            You either have evidence or you don’t. No evidence = untestable and unfasifiable = unscientific and inconclusive.

            Perhaps you misunderstood me. I did not mean that having scientific demarcation itself was somehow wrong, but that Huxley’s views about where the line is to be drawn were quite untenable.

            I am uninterested in debating Huxley, though, and he is not the subject of this post.

            • Jason Clark

              Interested enough to give a dishonest view of his feelings about evolution and natural selection. From the exact same article you quoted, yet chose to distort his views:

              “Another, and unfortunately a large class of persons take fright at the logical consequences of such a doctrine as that put forth by Mr. Darwin. If all species have arisen in this way, say they–Man himself must have done so; and he and all the animated world must have had a common origin. Most assuredly. No question of it.”

              Huxley whole heartedly believed in evolution. He lamented that it was so obvious, that he should have thought of it himself. He also believed in natural selection, with a qualifier…Huxley didn’t think enough time had passed for natural selection alone to have worked. He thought there needed to be “jumps” now and then.

              Guess what? He was right. DNA has shown that mutations occurred at various points in our evolution. FYI: evolution is now both fact and theory.