Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Atheist Or Agnostic?

Given the topic of my last few posts, now feels like a good time to clarify my current position.  I haven't been trying to hide it, per se, I guess I've just been so caught up in discussing other things that I've not paused long enough to state it plainly.

After losing my faith in Christianity, and with the concept of faith generally, I went through a period of time where I was unsure what I should call myself.  I felt strongly that it would no longer be appropriate to use the term "Christian", but what was the alternative?  Former Christian?  Skeptic? Agnostic?  Atheist?  I didn't know.  

For a while I toyed heavily with the term agnostic.  I liked the fact that agnostic implies a certain humility, in the minds of most people, because frankly I've always considered humility to be one of the greatest virtues (and I still feel this way).  At the same time, there were also things that I didn't like about the word.  When it would come up in casual conversation, that so and so claimed to be an agnostic, I noticed that my Christian friends would automatically have certain impressions.  For one, they viewed an agnostic as someone who just couldn't seem to make up their mind.  A waffler.  Worse still, the additional assumption was made that any and all agnostics hadn't really thought very much about the deeper questions in life.  I knew this wasn't true of me. In fact, in so far as I could tell, I had spent more time thinking about those things than most Christians that I personally knew.  Even still, the hidden implication remained that an agnostic was someone who needed to think more, so they could get off the fence!

I also had problems with the term atheist.  As a Christian, it had always been my belief that an atheist was someone who claimed to know for sure that there was "no god".  I certainly wasn't claiming this.  In fact, at the time, it felt arrogant to me.  With such a vast universe (or even multiverse!) how could tiny peons, like us, possibly claim to "know"?  

As I began to investigate the terminology further, I came to realize that both my friends and I had been mistaken.  Below I would like to share with you, what I learned, and then I will close by telling you where I stand.  

Firstly, it's important to understand (and most people don't) that gnosticism/agnosticism and theism/atheism deal with two different spheres.  The former two deal with the realm of knowledge, and the latter two with belief.  "Getting" this distinction is the key, I think, to a proper understanding.  Once it really clicked, for me, my remaining questions and concerns faded away rather quickly.  Let's break it down...

A gnostic--claims to know whether or not there is a god

An agnostic--claims not to know whether or not there is a god (or that we cannot know)

A theist--believes in a god

An atheist--does not believe in a god

As you may have picked up on, from the above definitions, the terms gnostic & agnostic are not mutually exclusive with the terms theist & atheist.  Let's break it down even further...

A gnostic theist--Claims to know that there is a God and believes in a god

An agnostic theist--Claims not to know whether or not there is a God, but believes in a god

A gnostic atheist--Claims to know that there is not a God and does not believe in a god (sometimes called a "positive", "hard" or "strong" atheist)

An agnostic atheist--Claims not to know whether or not there is a God, but does not believe in a god (sometimes called a "negative", "soft" or "weak" atheist)

Every one of us, whether we realize it or not, falls into one of these four categories (unless you have no position of any kind).  Simply ask yourself, "do I claim to know whether or not there is a god?".  If your answer is "yes", you are a gnostic; if "no", you are an agnostic.  And then, "do I believe in a god?".  If your answer is "yes", you are a theist; if "no", you are an atheist.

Most people don't use this sort of dual terminology, when describing themselves, in everyday discourse (to do so would be a bit clunky).  So when someone claims to be an "atheist", for example, it simply means on its own that they lack active belief in a god.  Nothing more.  Contrary to popular notions, agnosticism is not a halfway point between atheism and theism.  Many atheists are also agnostics and vice versa.

With that said, I am an agnostic atheist.  Where do you fall on the continuum?

I hope I've explained this clearly but, if you're still confused, I would encourage you to check out this link for an even fuller (and more visual) breakdown.  


  1. Thanks for your breakdown of terminology, it's helpful to me. I am an agnostic atheist, but struggle a lot with the perception others have of the various labels, as you describe in your third paragraph.

    I have used agnostic for a while, even knowing the relative inaccuracy or imprecision of the label, because I have believed it carried less negative connotation to christians than "atheist."

    On one hand, "agnostic" may be perceived as a waffler, but on the other hand, "atheist" can be perceived as a cold-hearted nasty God-hater. I don't feel I have a good handle on which perception would be more common, or which I would prefer to avoid!

    So usually when using a label, I provide the disclaimer that I hate labels. But really, I only hate them because people use them to pigeon-hole you into a category of their own making. But I suppose that is inevitable regardless of what one does.

  2. I struggled with some of these same things. It's one of the reasons I decided to call myself Respectful Atheist (to counter the assumption that all atheists are disrespectful/rude/arrogant etc.). Hopefully I can live up to the name.

  3. .....I noticed that my Christian friends would automatically have certain impressions. For one, they viewed an agnostic as someone
    who just couldn't seem to make up their mind. A waffler. Worse still, the additional assumption was made that any and all agnostics hadn't really thought very much about the deeper questions in life. I knew this wasn't true of me.....

    I would like to tell your friends that I see absolutely no need for making up your mind with perhaps the most difficult question we can come up with. What is wrong with doubt? I'm having doubts since I discovered the absurdities of Christianity when I was 15 or 16; I'm 80 now, and living quite happy, not knowing if God exists. Who knows for sure and, with all respect, who cares? Mind you, I don't say Chistianity is absurd, what I'm trying to say that it contains loads of absurd tales and dogmas. My wife, (great)(grand)children, in-laws, friends and neighbors form an orthodox Catholic community. With great effort, I can live with that, just as they accept me. I'm happy not to be sure about a God, it doesn't diminish one little bit my awe for the universe we can see and the multiverse we can sense.
    At any rate, if I should find evidence of a God, it certainly will NOT be a personal God - such a poor, provincial, limited being is unacceptable to me.

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  4. I like this. Thank you for breaking this down and for sharing the struggles you've found in describing yourself. I'm a gnostic theist and I'd say that each of the categories listed has a certain stereotype associated with it. To the point where I was reluctant to respond because I feared it could inhibit future dialogue with others here. So here's to hoping we all are above the stereotypes!

  5. What category would a deist fall into? Could that be a separate category? Would it be possible then to say that someone is an Agnostic Deist? What's your take on the difference between deism and theism? Thanks

    1. My take would be that you could simply replace the word theist with deist, in each of these categories, and nothing else would change. So, for example, an agnostic deist would be someone who believes in a non-personal god who acted as the first cause of the universe (but does not claim to know for sure that he/she/it exists). A gnostic deist would be someone who believes in a similar sort of god but does claim to know that he/she/it exists, and so on and so on. Deism is weird though. I personally have never met a deist, since most people either believe or don't believe in a personal god who is actually involved in our universe in some way or another...deism basically posits a god who hit the go button and then just walked away.

  6. I also claim to be an agnostic. I have a hard time understanding your second category regarding agnosticism and belief. To me it seems that nothing in my experience leads me to believe in a God of any kind – so I am agnostic about the knowledge of, concepts about, statements of what one believes, regarding God. In other words I have no belief regarding God. That is not the same thing as not believing in God. It seems to me that in the religious sphere, or religious state of mind that non-belief is not the same as a state of not believing. Agnosticism is not suspending belief. It is not a failure to make a judgment (sitting on the fence). Agnosticism seems to me to be an active, positive commitment to honesty and humility. In the face of what cannot be known the agnostic embraces the uncertainty and lives accordingly (often I would guess with compassion for others). Believing in God or not believing in God seems to me to be an act of the intellect, of the will which wishes to rid ourselves of the uncertainty of our actual experience. I guess I am trying to say that agnosticism has nothing to do with belief or unbelief and that your categories do not seem to address this issue.

  7. Great questions Cliff. Agnosticism really has nothing to do with belief. You are absolutely correct about this.

    But if "nothing in your experience leads (you) to believe in a God of any kind" than you are, by strict definition, also an atheist (even if you choose to call yourself an agnostic, which is totally fine by me). Atheism is properly defined as the "absence of belief" in a god or gods. You need not disbelieve, in any sort of active sense, in order to be an atheist. So, if you have "no belief" than you are indeed an atheist. And, yes, I also agree that agnosticism is not "suspending belief" because, again, gnosticism and agnosticism have nothing whatsoever to do with belief (only theism & atheism do). The former have to do with your position re: knowledge, not belief. As I said, above, my friends and I were dead wrong to think that agnosticism is "sitting on the fence". You can indeed have a very firm commitment to agnosticism!

    I totally get the fact that some people would prefer to self identify with the term agnostic. My own personal view is that people should feel free to use whichever word (atheist or agnostic) makes them feel the most comfortable. Or no term at all. Remember, all I am talking about above are the "technical" definitions of the words themselves. And some prefer to flip them the other way...so, for example, "agnostic atheism" becomes "atheistic agnosticism" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_atheism). But both ways mean precisely the same thing, since these two words deal with entirely different spheres. This is my understanding, at least, from the reading that I've done on the topic.

    Check out this link for more, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/mathew/intro.html

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I guess that I do fall into the atheist category as well as the agnostic one. Your link provided a nice summary and definition –although I had read the Huxley definition before. The link made me realize that I rapidly get in over my head. There is still one distinction which I am not clear about but feel that it is important. I sense that non-belief is not the same as dis-belief and maybe a better term for non-belief for me is suspension of belief. Dis-belief would be construed to be a strong position such as I do not believe in God. Non-belief is a weaker form of I do not have any evidence that support a belief in God. So perhaps what I am asserting is that there is a third position which is to suspend your belief – all of your beliefs regarding God - then where are you? I would say you are in a state of non-belief, but maybe I should say suspended belief. Well for sure you are not in the know; you are agnostic. Maybe I am engaged in some semantic smoke blowing – I don’t know for certain. In some way this distinction is experiential ( as in the sense of he who has eyes, or he who has ears – if you get my meaning) rather than intellectual (rational). Oh well, I am not too concerned about labels so I don’t know why I keep puzzling over this. Again thanks for your response.

    2. Science does not posit that one should "disbelieve" in anything, merely not believe in it until there is adequate empirical evidence to validate its existence.

      For example, although most scientific people would laugh at the idea that there are fairies at the bottom of wells, if you were able to demonstrate with some conclusive scientific evidence that there were indeed fairies at the bottoms of wells, every rational person with a commitment to science would be obligated to discard their former incredulity and accept their existence as fact.

      This tacitly demonstrates the difference between faith and non-faith, or "disbelief," as you much more negatively phrase/perceive it:

      Someone with faith will generally continue to believe in what they do even in the face of contrary evidence, until finally they learn enough about the real world to dispatch confirmation bias and other logical fallacies.

      Someone without faith only believes in what they do because of evidence which agrees, and must adjust their beliefs based on the available evidence.

      Thus, if you could prove the existence of God, atheists would be obligated to concede his existence - their commitment is not so much to the necessity of a lack of deity, but the necessity of sufficient evidence to prove his/her/its existence. Most atheists likely don't believe in God the same way they don't believe in goblins, and it has very little to do specifically with their feelings about the meaning or merit of individual religious ideas. (Although that may play a part for more vocal atheists.)

      Indeed, I feel it is somewhat our religiously saturated culture that has painted the disrespectful, arrogant, black-hearted "disbelieving atheist," rather than merely someone who is intelligent and humble enough to admit they don't know everything, and would prefer to rely upon demonstrated facts, and listen to the men in lab coats instead of the ones in pointy hats.

  8. Interesting discussion here. I suggest reading the link below and follow up by reading the sources cited therein.