• I’m banning agnosticism


    We’ve all come across that person. “Are you one-hundred percent absolutely certain that God doesn’t exist, with a water-tight logical mathematical proof to back it up? No? Well then. You’re not an atheist. You’re an agnostic.”

    Or, that other person. “I’m an atheist because I lack belief in gods, but I’m not certain, so I’m an agnostic. I’m an agnostic atheist.”

    Or, that rare thing, the self-professed ‘agnostic theist’. “I believe there’s a God, but I might be wrong. I’m an agnostic theist.”

    I’m not railing against its implied uncertainty. It’s more that I absolutely despise the word – it needlessly divides people on the basis of who likes the word or not, rather than who the word accurately describes, and I think it has done more harm than good to non-believers qua socio-political force.


    What does ‘agnostic’ mean?

    The definition of ‘agnostic’ will change depending on who you speak to. Some will tell you that ‘agnosticism’ describes a mental state – that of not being certain of your opinions. It is a recognition of fallibility; an expression of humility. We don’t know everything after all, and what we think we do know we might be wrong about. So, when we consider questions like the existence of God, we must recognise that we don’t have all the answers.

    Others will tell you that, in fact, that isn’t the true definition of ‘agnosticism’. An agnostic is one who makes an epistemological claim – that we cannot know whether or not God exists.

    There are other differences. Some use it to talk about evidence “there is no evidence either way” – that is a sort of fence-sitting position. Others mean that there’s no ‘proof’, often meaning some incontrovertible reason to think that God does or does not exist. Others just mean that they themselves don’t know, or don’t themselves have a reason.

    The ‘common usage’ method of determining a word’s meaning fails us, therefore, as there doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus. The dictionaries don’t really help, as you can find all of these definitions depending on which dictionary you look in.

    Huxley’s coinage doesn’t really help us either:

    When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.


    In fact, this is perhaps more confusing. Is an agnostic merely someone who doesn’t think they’ve ‘solved the problem of existence’ or someone who also believes it to be ‘insoluble’? It also seems that Huxley intended the word to denote a rejection of all other epistemological positions, rather than just those relating to theism. An ‘agnostic’, according to Huxley, should not only refrain from calling herself a theist or an atheist, but also materialist or idealist. This might be troubling for some self-proclaimed ‘agnostic’s. While it might be palatable to claim that they do not have enough knowledge to make a claim about theism, would they also be happy to state that they do not have enough knowledge to claim that there are corporeal objects extended in space?


    We don’t need agnosticism

    Huxley, in juxtaposing ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ is assuming that an ‘atheist’ is someone who makes a knowledge claim, i.e. someone who ‘knows’ God doesn’t exist. This is often called ‘strong‘ or ‘positive’ atheism, and contrasted with ‘weak’ or ‘negative’ atheism. Huxley makes no such distinction, however. For him, what I call ‘strong atheism’ is just ‘atheism’, and what I call ‘weak atheism’ is ‘agnosticism’. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what you call something so long as the meaning is clear, but the meaning of ‘agnosticism’ isn’t clear. ‘Weak atheism’ is much clearer. It means that you are not a theist, or that you don’t believe (or lack belief) in a god. No fuzziness with regard to other epistemological positions, or confident claims about such things being ‘insoluble’. Weak atheism is not believing in a god. Strong atheism is believing that there isn’t a god.

    What about ‘agnostic atheism’? Of course, if agnosticism is just a form of atheism, then ‘agnostic’ is just redundant, though I think that when used in this way the speaker means that they don’t claim certainty. But how many philosophical positions require an auxiliary adjective as a caveat about its epistemological status? We don’t say “I’m an agnostic idealist” when we want to express that we don’t yet possess a mathematical proof for idealism. It’s partly taken as a given, and partly just not very interesting. It would be far more interesting to say “I’m an idealist and I have a really great argument that allows me to hold such a view with near-certainty!”, and given the scarcity of such arguments it would be better if we stopped using the term ‘agnostic’ and, unless stated otherwise, assumed that we all hold our views with the proviso that we might be wrong.

    ‘Agnostic theism’ is possibly the closest I can come to accepting that there’s some good reason for keeping the word ‘agnostic’ around. Most believers seem to claim their views with certainty, based on their claimed experiences. If a theist comes along who states ‘I might be wrong’, then that’s a little more interesting, but they could just say ‘I might be wrong’.


    Why I’m banning it

    Sagan, Russell, Tyson, Hawking, Einstein, Huxley, Darwin etc. are/were all atheists. We might be able to tell this to theists, in order to convince them that (though it doesn’t prove it is true) atheism is at least a respectable position and atheists should themselves be respected. But what usually happens is the theist will pull out some quote where each person says that they are an ‘agnostic’ or ‘not an atheist’ or something similar. The term ‘agnostic’ only exists because lots of atheists don’t like the term ‘atheist’ or have a misconception that atheism is necessarily dogmatic, or just another religion. The continued existence of the term ‘agnostic’ perpetuates this misconception, and leads to atheists not putting ‘atheist’ in polls or censuses. This can have political ramifications against atheists as a group, a group that is often ignored or maligned (particularly in the US). This is a needless division between many people who, at least with respect to theism, all believe (or don’t believe) the same basic thing.

    Therefore, I think that I have good reasons to ban the term ‘agnosticism’.


    Category: AtheismReligion

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.

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    • I’d just like to say I was banning agnosticism before it was cool (Notung has now made it cool). http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous/2012/10/14/agnosticism-is-irrelevant-and-untenable-part-3/

    • Though I still engage with so-called “agnostics” from time to time (to point out that they’re using the term dishonestly to try to carve out a middle position of *belief* that doesn’t actually exist just to get out of having to say whether they believe or not), I thought the term is pretty useless for a while now.

      For whatever reason, it isn’t important for one to use gnosticism/agnosticism when stating outright that Santa Claus, faries, and Big Foot don’t exist. But then you throw in “god” and all of these reactionaries lose their shit?

    • I see room for both terms, as I wrote here: http://www.skepticink.com/freesociety/atheist-religiphobia-or-what-to-call-yourself/#sthash.kOrc1arI.dpbs (Although, I don’t think I’d define the varied utility of the two terms in the same way today as I did then. So perhaps a follow-up is in order.)

    • No, you’re wrong

      Einstein- Albert Einstein’s religious views have been studied extensively. He said he believed in the “pantheistic” God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, while disassociating himself from the label atheist, preferring, he said, “an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” (Direct from Wikipedia)

    • I do acknowledge this in the post:

      But what usually happens is the theist will pull out some quote where each person says that they are an ‘agnostic’ or ‘not an atheist’ or something similar.

    • So…

      So they are NOT atheist. These are men who have lead very isolate lives, you are claiming that peer pressure made them decide that they have issues with the decision to be atheist, have you considered being atheist has flaws? Your view on “No such thing as agnosticism” is troubling. You claim that you either believe either side. Surely rationally speaking, we do not have the “proof” of either side of the argument, so why must everyone commit to a viewpoint? These are practiced men who have used scientific methods to calculate their findings. Surely the idea of outright assuming there is no god, is not their way of thinking?

    • I’m not claiming we must ‘outright assume’ or ‘commit to’ anything. In fact, (again) I cover your point in the post – 2nd paragraph of “We don’t need agnosticism”.

    • And…

      For him, what I call ‘strong atheism’ is just ‘atheism’, and what I call ‘weak atheism’ is ‘agnosticism’.
      Is an opinion (you’re more than welcome to have) but you are levering it with it being a presumed fact. With your definition of the word; To be “agnostic” is to be of the belief that god is NOT real, but open to finding out. What do you call the people in between that and (I presume you have a definition) Theist agnostic? How do you measure theism to atheism in terms of being agnostic. There is a problem with determining how much someone is Theist and Atheist then? The idea of being a “true” Agnostic is to not to be leveraged to a side. We have subdivisions of Theist Agnostic and Atheist Agnostic (which already muddles being Agnostic up) for those who lean towards one but rather not make a claim. What about the people who are truly impartial to a side? You seem to lack a definition for that. You’re seeing it as a bit too black/white, as we can’t claim a “true” middle ground on your theory. Do you believe that everyone HAS to believe a side (subconsciously?) I understand your reasons for thinking in the terms you are however, and using citings from the initial creator of agnosticism in another context was interesting but I disagree (as polite as I can).

    • And…

      Apologies on the massive wall of text, was trying to say as precise and fluent as I could at this late hour. Was just trying to see through another viewpoint, always good to see another view ^^

    • No apologies necessary! All input is welcome.

    • I think someone either believes or they don’t. Note that “or they don’t” doesn’t mean they believe God doesn’t exist. It just means that it is not the case that they believe God exists. So no such middle ground exists. “Weak atheist” is what I use to describe people who don’t believe, if I don’t want to state that they believe God doesn’t exist. If I want to specify that, I use “strong atheist”. If I don’t care to make the distinction (which is the vast majority of the time), I just say “atheist”.

    • Need new titles for responses

      Interesting, but isn’t assuming there is no middle ground an issue with someone who is backing the claim to being middle due to lack of evidence on either? I’m confused as to whether you are trying to say that they either believe (or won’t admit) or subconsciously decide? Or are you of the belief if you don’t believe in a god wholly, you are then an atheist? How would you categorize someone that is dependent on evidence either way to even make a remote decision? Who neither leans to one side (at least, not consciously- but that’s a bit tricky to determine) due to desire of seeing some empirical knowledge?
      +Which is why I don’t (usually) respond to people who use “Santa Claus” or other such forms of mythos in contextomy (also the irony that he did in fact exist, but not in his modern form; Nikolaos of Myra)

    • If they’re withholding judgement because they don’t have enough evidence either way (or for any other reason for that matter), then I would call them a ‘weak atheist’, and wouldn’t call them a ‘strong atheist’.

      My ‘no middle ground’ claim concerns middle ground between theism and weak atheism rather than between theism and strong atheism.

    • And

      I guess I’m just hung up on the idea of weak ‘atheism’ being more inclined to not believe in a deity and to be a more complicated (and confusing) form of agnosticism. I’m trying to determine myself your definition of the middle ground between theism and weak atheism, but I think your definition of atheism and weak atheism (Which I myself would label agnostic atheism) conflict with my own. As agnosticism is a form of atheism, in your context, but I’m just attempting to decipher how/why you think that. Out of interest, are you more of a literal thinker/collective thinker?

    • Didgya

      I think ‘agnostic’ just gives a finer tuned (had to say it) definition. Agnostic Atheist = Doesn’t know if true, believes its not true. Agnostic Theist= Doesn’t know if true, believes its true. The problem I have is when someone uses agnostic as an ‘in-between’ for Theist/Atheist. These are beliefs and agnosticism is a qualifier.