Sunday, August 22, 2010

Agnostic vs. Atheist

Amusing, but the spelling drives me nuts!
The Friendly Atheist had a post on this topic in May.  I disagree with the post itself and found the comments to be all over the map, but it all got me thinking.

From Merriam-Webster
Agnostic - 1 : 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
Atheisma : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity

By its very nature the existence of some sort of god isn't knowable, unless of course said god one day decides to unequivocally show itself to the masses - maybe by calling a televised press conference (you can be sure that Fox News would be there).  My belief here falls cleanly under the definition of agnostic.

But it's not that easy.  While I don't believe anyone can say that there absolutely is no god, at the same time I've seen absolutely no evidence to lead me to believe that there is a god. I often hear the phrase "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence".  That's not quite true.  A more accurate statement would be that "absence of evidence is not proof of absence" although that doesn't have near the fancy ring to it.  It is absolutely evidence of absence.  Given this evidence of absence I choose to believe that there is no god.  Here I fall under the atheist definition.

So which am I?  I have long considered myself to be agnostic, but not because it's a "safe way" of saying I don't believe in god, or because the word atheist "sounds evil and wrong and scary" as was suggested by Hemant.  It's because I think the term agnostic best defines my beliefs.

My type of agnosticism has changed over the years.  There was a time when I quite strongly believed that there was some sort of supreme, supernatural being that was responsible for everything, but I still didn't think it had any relation to the religions of the world or any of the holy books.  At that time I would have been considered an Agnostic Theist (also known as a Weak Theist).  I referred to myself as a deist or simply spiritual.

Gradually as I did more research in my journey for truth and knowledge, I began to lean farther away from believing in the supernatural.  Now I would consider myself to be an Agnostic Atheist (also known as a Weak Atheist).  I am fairly certain that there is no god, but I have no way of proving it, but I will live my life as if it has been proven. 

One other item from Hemant's post:  "no one says they’re agnostic about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. No one says they’re agnostic about Zeus or Thor. So why are they agnostic about “God”?"
I am atheist about the FSM because it is an admittedly made up thing.  No one actually claimed that it was real so I have no problem classifying it as fiction.  I am atheist about Roman and Greek mythology because the general consensus is that they were myths - that the people of the time made up stories to try to explain the world around them.  Anything that is acknowledged  to have been made up does not deserve to be given any credence as fact.

If you ask me about the current world religions, I would also respond that I am atheist about these.  The holy books have been sufficiently discredited for my needs in order to dismiss them as utter fiction.  But the fact that they are still believed by so many is enough to open a crack in my mind to the possibility of something supernatural that may have kick started these beliefs.  Let's be clear though that this is a minuscule crack - enough to keep me in the agnostic category but not anywhere near big enough to have any effect whatsoever on my life.

In reading the comments to Hemant's post, I'm really surprised by the negative views on this.  So many of the atheists view the agnostics as "not having balls" and so many of the agnostics view the atheists as arrogant.  I'm happy to see that some understand that it's just semantics.  It doesn't really matter what we label ourselves - we're all pretty much on the same page.


  1. In the end, does it matter what the label is? Either you have practical belief in a supernatural being, not matter how weak, or you don't. The labels just justify why someone is not happy saying they do or don't believe in simplistic terms. People will even argue with that and I suspect some of those simply want a label they can cling to which has no negative connotations in their eyes.

    two people at the bar:

    1 - so you're agnostic?
    2 - yeah, I think so.
    1 - so you believe in a higher power?
    2 - yeah, something like that. It's possible.
    1 - think you'll ever meet this higher power?
    2 - no, probably not
    1 - you're an atheist in any practical sense of the word.
    2 - but you can't prove there is no higher power, so who is to know for sure.
    1 - and you can't prove there is one, so how is my understanding of the world different? I'll tell you, I don't hold out hope that there is magic in the universe. other than that, we've both made decisions on lack of evidence. I see no evidence for sky daddies so say there are none. You see no evidence proving they don't exist so you say they could be and so you hold out hope for magic. One of us has a skewed set of expectation of life. BTW, it's your round

  2. I'm so close to agreeing with you....but not quite. Holding out hope for said magic implies that I want it to exist and really I couldn't care less either way. I don't have any belief in a supernatural being, but I also can't disprove it. (Wouldn't that be awesome if I could??)
    And lastly - you're wasted! - I bought the last round! ;^)