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Posted by on Aug 25, 2012 in Atheism, Religion | 17 comments

Agnostics, You Are Atheists

I am writing this post as a quick response to John Loftus’s recent entry, Agnostics, You Should be Atheists. My argument is that agnostics already are, but may not know it. Actually, to attribute credit where credit is due, this idea was first expressed by the late Christopher Hitchens, who argued that since agnostics don’t know if there’s a god, that means they don’t believe in a god, and thus all agnostics are atheists. And, at least in a sense, he is right, because agnosticism technically refers to knowledge, while atheism refers to belief. 

Further, there are many different flavors of atheism, so just like Baskin Robins ice cream, you can pick whichever one tastes best. For example, there are positive atheists, who assert that there is no god, and there are negative atheists, who simply lack a belief in god(s). There are agnostic atheists who don’t know if there’s a god, and ignostic atheists, who don’t know what a god is. There are strong atheists who are convinced in their beliefs (or lack of them) and weak atheists who aren’t very certain. The only common ground is that most atheists have dismissed the possibility of a theist god who cares about what happens here on earth. Yet still, most remain open to new evidence should it arise.  So if you’re agnostic and fit into any of the categories I just described, then welcome to atheism.

In reality, as the atheism movement has grown, it has become more inclusive of different opinions on god’s existence. So if you’re not religious (or even if you are), then atheism welcomes you.

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  • Damn, I left out gnostic atheists, who know there is no god.

  • Nice!

  • Achrachno

    I tend to call myself hardcore agnostic. I don’t know what theists are talking about and am quite sure they don’t either. I can’t affirm or deny the existence of “God”because the meaning of that word shifts with virtually every believer I talk to, and sometimes within a single conversation. I’ve read a fair bit of theology and apologetics, but it’s all theobabble to me.

  • Ken McGlothlen

    “Atheism” is a pretty big tent, thanks in part to its inherent squishiness. The word “atheist” technically means, at its simplest, “not a theist,” and that covers a lot of territory.

    As for me, I still don’t know how to define myself. I’m very fond of the Stephen Roberts quote:

    “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    When asked “Do you believe in God?”, my usual answer is “Whose?” Framing the question precisely poses something of a challenge to the questioner, who usually stutters out something on the order of “Well, THE God,” or perhaps “The Christian God” or some other vague specification.

    My main problem with all the various descriptions of God I have encountered is twofold: (1) people set the bar FAR too low for God, and (2) their God is just phenomenally tiny.

    By “setting the bar too low,” what I mean is the willingness to describe every possible outcome as a direct blessing from a personally involved God.

    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly got to Boston without any problems!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly got to Boston with only one hiccup!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly got to Boston after their car broke down!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly were in a safe place when their car broke down!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly didn’t have anything happen to them when their car broke down in the worst part of town!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly only got mugged once when their car broke down in the worst part of town!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly only had one fender-bender during their trip!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly walked away from the accident without a scratch!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly walked away from the accident with only a few cuts and bruises!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly were next to the hospital right after their accident!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly only had a few broken bones!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly were found still alive after two days!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly are still with us, and God is healing all their internal injuries!”
    “Praise God that Billy and Shelly are still with us, and we hope that God wakes them from their comas real soon!”
    “Praise God that Billy is still with us!”
    “Praise God that they both died instantly, and are now with Him!”
    “Praise God that we had a little time to spend with them before the end!”
    “Praise God for painkillers so that the few months we had with them before the end were relatively peaceful!”

    When absolutely everything qualifies as a blessing, you demean the word itself.

    As far as the “tiny God” thing, I mean that: we’re talking about an entity that has supposedly created the entire Universe. That’s a big, big, big vasty-vast place. Getting the scale of its enormity, and imagining the priorities of the Being who could do all that on whatever scale, is probably an unfathomable task for a species who you’d have to stack 1.5 billion of just to reach the moon. And you want me to believe that this amazing Being took time out of His day to tell Abraham to kill his son because He’d get his kicks that way? Or that he’d wipe out thousands of people, including children and babies, because they were ‘wicked,’ just to save eight faithful people and a small subset of animals who built a barge to specifications? Or that the sum total of His nature and will is easily contained in this official Gideon version of an 9 x 12″ book of several hundred pages?

    I really can’t believe how much most of Christianity (and Judaism, and Islam) makes God seem incredibly small and petty.

    But that still doesn’t keep me from speculating on what such a being’s true nature might be, and what our relationship might be to such a being. Nor does it keep me from speculating about the Universe. It does tend to leave me cold at the thought of accepting anything in faith anymore—I know all too well how easily humans can be fooled—but I’m curious enough about the question to speculate about things for which I have no firm evidence of.

    So as with so many things, there’s no good label for me. I’m not an agnostic in its original sense—I think there’s not even enough evidence to show that we’ll never be able to prove the existence of God—and “unsure” doesn’t quite mean “without” or “against.” Even the term “spiritual” doesn’t fit comfortably on me.

    I suspect, all things considered, that “atheism”, like race, like religion, like species, like pretty much everything else, is a spectrum with no clearly defined boundaries (but pretty clear regions within it)—and that nobody is going to be happy about this fact.

    • Thank you for the comment, I largely agree. I don’t think there’s any harm, though, in having a range of secular opinions covered by the term, “atheism.”

  • Jennifer Allen

    You’re correct, of course, that gnosticism/agnosticism is about knowledge whereas theism/atheism is about belief.

    A few years ago I had a chat about religion with a charming young lady who was raised in a fundy home and, from preschool through university, went only to fundy schools. I recall asking her the questions below:

    Me: Do you believe in the Christian god and that Jesus was God in human form on earth?
    Her: Yes, absolutely.

    Me: Do you know that any god actually exists, including the Christian god?
    Her: No, I can’t say I know. I don’t actually know, and I don’t think I can know now, but I’m supremely hopeful.

    She doesn’t know and doesn’t think she can know, but she believes. She’s an agnostic theist. And there are many like her who don’t know, but do believe.

    Therefore, all agnostics are NOT atheists.


    [Of course, one can come to a different conclusion by munging the definition of the two key words, but I’m not interested in contesting jabberwacky. 🙂 ]

    • You’re right (again); those who don’t know but believe can be defined as agnostic theists. But that’s the premise of religion in the first place — to believe in what you can’t know. It’s called religious faith.

      Similarly, I can make the argument that agnostics who believe in the possibility of a theist god are not really atheists. But more generally, I’m disputing the common assertion that atheists know there’s no god.

      There’s also an interesting point about this entry on my FB page, where the difference between knowledge and belief is discussed. This can be another point of contention.

      • Copyleft

        This distinction often comes up in debates with believers: “Atheists claim there’s no god!”

        No, atheists lack a belief in god. There are some people who go beyond that and positively claim that there is no god–and since they obviously lack belief, they count as atheists too. But that doesn’t define what atheism IS, just one subgroup that happens to fall under the category Atheists.

  • Let’s not forget Pastic Atheists, who know there is spaghetti.

  • Nicholas Covington

    I am high probability atheist, meaning I think it’s really unlikely that a perfect person without a body created the universe, and further think that any bodiless person is unlikely.

    However, that position only applies to the type of god that the average person believes in. When it comes to the gods of high-brow theologians, I think they’re speaking nonsense:

    • Thanks for the comment; I’ll definitely check out your link and respond.

  • I disagree. The best way to view atheism is in terms of a null hypothesis –

    Atheism accepts the null, that there are no supernatural agents, because of absence of evidence.

    Agnostics do not accept the null – they give the benefit of the doubt to the assumption that there may be. That necessitates a degree of faith in the intangible.

    Making rabbit stew again – split hares.

    • That’s a reasonable position, although I’m not sure it applies to how all atheists define themselves. And for my *strictly political* purposes, the more reasonable atheists (and/or agnostics), the better. Franc-ly, the less ideologues, the better.

  • Egbert

    Labeling oneself and others is a process of identification, that takes away our individuality and uniqueness. If we can see past labels and accept each other as unique beings, then that might take us one step out of the objectification of everything.

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  • William

    This is simply not true. Agnosticism is not in a dichotomy with gnosticism, albeit this is a common mistake made by “atheists.” The term “agnostic” was coined by Dr. Thomas Huxley as the third branch of a trichotomy with theism and atheism. As Huxley said, theists affirm that deity exists while atheists deny the existence thereof, but he said there was a third option—agnosticism—where it is recognized that neither theism nor atheism can be proven.

    This is why many “atheists” try to claim agnostics: namely, they are not atheists at all but are rather Huxleyan agnostics. They are ideologically tied to the title “atheist,” so they are driven to twist and contort the words to fit. For example, I have seen many “atheists” assert that atheism comes from a+theism (no belief in deity), but the term actually derives from atheos, or godless, in the context of an active and willful denial of deity.

    This blog further complicates the matter by suggesting that a person can also be ignostic as well as atheist, but this also is not true. An atheist, a godless one, denies deity in all its forms. If a person denies that deity exists, there is no point in questioning what deity means or how people view deity. An ignostic questions the concept of deity or the concept of the lack thereof, but the possibility remains that something may indeed exist, albeit without being confined to our notions of its existence or lack thereof.

    Furthermore, dismissing “the possibility of a theist god who cares about what happens here” while still being open to the idea of deity would suggest one is a deist. Again, an actual “godless one” would say no deity exists, full stop. If a person says, “Yahweh does not exist, but there could be a Creator that is hands-off now,” they are not atheos. That is actually a rather close match to the deism of the Enlightenment, which was popular among many of America’s founders.

    The term “atheist” has become popular with people who are actively opposed to religion because the see “atheism” as the direct opposite of “theism,” but an agnostic, ignostic, or deist could be just as opposed as an actual atheist. There is no reason for “anti-theists” to try conflating everything that isn’t “theist” with “atheist.” Sadly, that is exactly what has been happening, and it only serves to muddy the waters. Thomas Huxley recognized the difference. Bertrand Russell recognized the difference. Carl Sagan recognized the difference. Neil DeGrasse Tyson recognizes the difference.