This is my first real rant... breaking out that soap box.
Agnostic has broadened my world and introduced so many lovely people into my life that I deeply enjoy the company of. Our conversations are sometimes fun and lighthearted, other times intense and intellectual. I've learned many things from this community and the people in it.
That said, there is this tired old debate. One where agnostics and atheists can't seem to agree on definitions for the words. I'm not going to sit here and post telling all of you that people misunderstand and they need to be taught! That is so demeaning and presumptuous when people do that. It's preaching and coaching rather than talking to someone like a peer. I respect all of you as peers and fellow critical thinkers, so...
I can tell you my own interpretation based on the digging that I've done. I won't ask you to agree with it. All I ask is you do what you already do, think critically. Be open minded. And, most of you are pretty cool and respectful peeps, so I don't think I need to say it-- but there is always one person that needs the reminder. So, here it is! Please play nice. ; )
Disclaimer: if you want to call yourself an agnostic, atheist, agnostic atheist-- whatever, it's your choice based on what fits you most comfortably. The term you choose for yourself is what matters more than my interpretation of the words.
Ah, so for almost 20 years, I've said I was an atheist. After joining agnostic, someone ranted about atheism and agnosticism being mutually exclusive. That someone made me re-evaluate my own thinking. I started digging into the words a little more... and then I started questioning my own bias.
Was I calling myself atheist, because I rejected the dogma of religion (which on an emotional level really pisses me off)? When I thought about it, I could only reject certain gods. Because there was not only no proof of these gods, the evidence was stacked against the holy books these gods are defined in.
I absolutely do not believe the Abrahamic god as portrayed in the bible or similar holy texts is real. These holy texts disprove themselves with contradictions and inaccuracies.
I do not reject the idea of the possibility of a creator of some sort. I do not believe it. But, I do not disbelieve it.
My beliefs and disbeliefs are based on facts and evidence. I will shift beliefs regardless of my feelings, if the facts and evidence align.
*When I looked into the terms atheist and agnostic here is the defining difference
Definition of atheism
1 a : a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods
b : a philosophical or religious position characterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods
Definition of agnostic
1 : a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (such 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
*The difference between the two, per Merriam-Webster (and I agree with this interpretation, which is why I regularly quote it)
Many people are interested in distinguishing between the words agnostic and atheist. The difference is quite simple: atheist refers to someone who believes that there is no god (or gods), and agnostic refers to someone who doesn’t know whether there is a god, or even if such a thing is knowable. This distinction can be troublesome to remember, but examining the origins of the two words can help.
Agnostic first appeared in 1869, (possibly coined by the English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley), and was formed from the Greek agn?stos (meaning "unknown, unknowable" ). Atheist came to English from the French athéisme. Although both words share a prefix (which is probably the source of much of the confusion) the main body of each word is quite different. Agnostic shares part of its history with words such as prognosticate and prognosis, words which have something to do with knowledge or knowing something. Atheist shares roots with words such as theology and theism, which generally have something to do with God.
Depending on your interpretation, I could be defined as an atheist or an agnostic. Atheist if we're talking ONLY about the Abrahamic god. But, why was I defining myself as if Christianity was the anchor of the definition?
In broad strokes, I realized agnostic fits better for me. I don't know if a god or creator exists. And, if I have to label myself, I prefer to think in general.
Some people call themselves agnostic atheists. Per wiki, one of the earliest definitions of agnostic atheism is that of Robert Flint, in his Croall Lecture of 1887–1888 (published in 1903 under the title Agnosticism).
I understand the intent behind the conjoined term, but in my mind these two concepts contradict. How can you both not believe (disbelieve) and claim unknowability? Why have both terms at all, aren't you just agnostic if you require evidence?
But, I suppose it comes from the desire to say, I disbelieve until someone proves otherwise. Which, I do get. But, agnostics don't believe anything without evidence either. So, I don't feel the need to put the terms together. Though, I don't find I need to argue with people who do want to put them together. It does make it's point, which is the whole purpose of labels to begin with. So, OK.
To sum this up, in my opinion there is no perfect term, label, or word for me. I use labels as a general means to find things that interest me under these headings and to connect with people who generally share my viewpoint-- or at least share the desire to reject dogma and examine things critically.
This rant is only because I've seen several people try to "educate" others on the definitions. To tell everyone they are wrong and have a misconception. This has long been debated and really, to what end? There isn't a good conclusive resource to say side A is right and side B is wrong, so why keep bringing it up? To educate people without a strong source to reference is against the very concept of freethinking. It's better to say "my opinion is..." or "my interpretation is..." and even myself, I cannot claim that I am right and others are wrong. There is no really good corroboration for either side here. Our sources don't even really agree.
Truth be told, I hate labels anyway. I don't feel the need to have a specific tattoo of either agnostic or atheist. Those of you who know me get the gist of what I do and don't believe. I hate dogmatic thinking-- that's the end game.
Fuck the labels. If you don't like dogma, you are my people, my tribe, and I'm good with whatever definition you want to use.
Seriously, call yourself whatever you want, friends.
If you read to the end, thank you for hearing me out. This is the longest blurb I've written. I will now step off my soap box.
There is no "agnostic versus atheist". Each is the answer to a different question. Agnostic is about knowledge, atheist is about belief. If they're being honest, many religious people would agree that they think the existence of a god (or their god(s) in particular) is unknown and unknowable; a person can clearly be an agnostic believer.
People can (and do) call me whatever they want to, but I don't feel any need to assume an identity (pro or con) based on other people's hallucinations. Different dictionaries define those terms differently anyway, so a conviction of one perspective over another is really a statement of arbitrary loyalty to, you guessed it, another book!
To my mind, a more vexing problem is that everybody seems to assume that they are all talking about the same thing when they use the word god, when, realistically, no two people are likely to see that concept exactly the same if they were to talk it out fully. By various definitions I am a theist, an atheist, and an agnostic, as well as none of those.
I don't know of any way to communicate my position other than through lengthy, two-way discussions. Two-way because I don't know how to add an idea to your current understanding until I am familiar with that understanding. I don't know how to talk to you until I know what certain words mean to you. Communication is relational.
Arguments over the definitions of words are not really arguments. They are just two people telling each other what those words mean to them. They are both right. All we can do is listen, believe them, and try to take that into account.
Get out of my head! Point well stated, and exactly!!!
"In broad strokes, I realized agnostic fits better for me. I don't know if a god or creator exists. And, if I have to label myself, I prefer to think in general."
"Fuck the labels. If you don't like dogma, you are my people, my tribe, and I'm good with whatever definition you want to use."
Thanks for this post. Love it.
Well done. As for me, I fall in the camp that believes the existence of God is unknowable. One may label that whatever one chooses. It doesn't rule out the possibility of a God of some sort. It just states that (with our current understanding and ability) we can't prove or disprove the existence of a greater being than us.
Part 1) Precise thoughts come from precise language.
If we adopt the "call yourself whatever you want" ideology, then are we ok with theist calling themselves atheists and atheists calling themselves theist? I should think not.
As well with agnostic and atheist; these are two different words with two different meanings. They are not synonyms. And in teasing out the differences we tease out what our true intentions and feelings are on an issue. You said it yourself, by posing the idea that agnostic and atheist were mutually exclusive, someone made you think about your own beliefs, made them more precise.
Part 2) "The limits of my language are the limits of my world" - Wittgenstein
There is a problem in relying on dictionaries and that is that dictionaries try to boil down complex ideas into a sentence or two and we are on this site discussions some of the most complex ideas in philosophy and theology. Thus, while we can use dictionaries as a jumping off point, we have to be careful that they are not the only point. The Wittgenstein quote can be viewed to mean that if you use the wrong words to describe yourself, you are unfairly limiting your worldview and, conversely, by choosing the right word you broaden your world view. I've seen many many many posts on this site about people, whom once their realized they were atheist, once they could put a name to their feeling, felt like a weight was off their shoulder, like the world made more sense to them. As such, an exploration of labels is very important to us for as humans it not only give definition to our thoughts but also to give us a sense of where we belong and what communities rally around the same words, the same thoughts.
Part 3) A personal account
I've had two threads where I've brought into question the meaning of the word agnostic. For a site named agnostic.com, this should be par for the course and yet I've often met this idea that I'm being pedantic, that I should leave well enough alone, or that I'm just flat our wrong. And that is fine! We pure agnostics are the minority on this board (and perhaps in society) and it should come as no surprise that how we view ourselves is not in vogue. If you don't agree with how I define myself, then so be it. If you don't agree with how I see you define yourself, I challenge you to also be ok with it. I am a teacher by trade and, ironically, I don't teach; I facilitate. It is not my intention to be a teacher on what agnostic means but it is my intention for me to facilitate your understanding of what I mean when I say agnostic.
Conclusion) Respectful discourse is more important than labels
While I disagree with the content of Silvereyes post (as I believe labels do matter), I wholeheartedly agree with it's spirit: let us strive to understand each other using whatever labels we see fit.... but let us not get upset if the labels we choose for ourselves or others are challenged for growth comes from challenge, not blind acceptance. If this clashes with how you view me or that term, then I say more power to us both! Most of the clashes I've had on this topic have been respectful and intelligent, with each side presenting their points for why they feel this way. Most. Not all. And thus I will continue to espouse my views and live by them peacefully and respectfully. If you want to join me for the ride using the labels I chose, great! If you don't or if you want to use different labels, great as well! But let us challenge each other to meet our disagreements with the spirit of respectful discourse for that is more important than just about anything... including labels.
"but in my mind these two concepts contradict. How can you both not believe (disbelieve) and claim unknowability?"
Easily, you do it too.
Do you believe you'll be dead in 30 minutes time?
I'd assume the answer is no.
Can you know right now that you won't be dead in 30 minutes time?
So it's not at all contradictory to disbelieve something while simultaneous accepting you can't know it.
Like you, I don't care for labels. All I can definitively say is, for me, there are no gods, period. So, call me what you will, I honestly do not care.
Gods and religions are, in my opinion, derivatives of man's early efforts to explain the unexplainable; which somehow devolved into mechanisms for controlling the less powerful in society and taking advantage of those susceptible to the comfort of belief.
It is beyond my ken that one could look at the universe, and with even the slightest understanding of what we know, evidentially, about it, could firmly enjoin the notion that it was spawned from nothing but the mind of something or some "one" of whom we are not even able to conceive, if you accept the theistic viewpoint. Sounds like pure fantasy to me.
Sorry, but one good rant sometimes begets another rant.
I guess my own take of it is, an atheist would say, "I don't believe in higher power(s)." And an agnostic would say, "I don't know if any higher power(s) exists." It may be oversimplification, of course. But I find it best to start off simple then go from there.
You are on a journey. One that I took. Eventually, I "believe" you will end up a Humanist.
I could define that word, for our reasons, as we are all humans. Some have beliefs in supernatural beings and others doubt we can know.
Agnosticism is the preferred philosophic position, but I find Humanism the friendliest. Once again, we are all humans.
Thank you for this! I hate labels, as well....but I relate most to agnostic, as you have described it above. There have been a few times on this site that I have considered never coming back, mainly from the aggressive "education" attempts from a few extremist, self-labeled atheists. No one has the right to define who I am, except for me. Labels are just words, that are a tool to help describe a viewpoint. But those words can be arbitrary if they're not flexible enough to include everyone's interpretation. If someone wants to dig their heels in over their own interpretation, then they and I are not communicating. If they insist that I am wrong, and they are right, conversation is over. Sometimes that's for the best! Ha.
Thanks for the rant.
I self-identify as an atheist. I marmalise anybody who (cherry) picks a dictionary definition to tell me what I am. I get sick and tired of people who fail to understand the limitations that are inherent in all dictionary definitions.
When asked to explain myself, I trot out this tired old war horse: "Nobody has ever produced any falsifiable evidence to support the existence claim of any god. Oh, and it is trivial to prove that both the god of the Torah and the god of the Bible cannot exist.".
I watch The Atheist Experience on a regular basis (it was the show that educated me to understand that I was, in fact, an atheist.... and that the label atheist wasn't a scary horrible thing!).
I like the way Matt Dillahunty from that program explains it, and it helped me understand this clearly:
atheism/theism is about BELIEF
agnosicism/gnosticism is about KNOWLEDGE
And he also goes on to explain that knowledge is a subset of belief - that is, knowledge is when you believe to a degree of certainty that it becomes knowledge. Hence, agnosticism is a subset of atheism. Some atheists simply withhold their belief because they haven't been presented with evidence to support the claim that there is a god... and those who are anti-theists, or gnostic theists go one step further and say they believe to the point that they know there are no gods.
This is what I found very helpful in my understanding, and it's how I describe it to others when we talk about this topic.
I really enjoyed your post. I have bit of a different take on it, though. Let me know if you have thoughts.
I'm not particular on what someone calls themselves, I know atheist has negative connotations associated with it and I can see why people avoid it. However, I think the confusion is that theism and gnosticism address two separate prongs of the question and that's what is getting mixed together.
Theism is a belief in god/s. Atheism is lack of belief in god/s.
Gnosticism is a claim of knowledge about something. Agnosticism is claim of lack of knowledge of something.
Essentially one is dealing with belief, and the other is dealing with claiming knowledge. You can believe there is god/s and claim to know for sure. You can also believe in god/s and claim not to know for sure. You can disbelieve and claim to know for sure, or disbelieve and claim not to know. They are separate questions.
The confusion is that both positions are binary. As you state you don't believe in any god/s. Then you say you don't disbelieve. These are contradictory statements. You can say you hold no belief either way, but that in fact makes you an atheist because you have to have a belief to be a theist. And if you are not a theist, you are by definition an atheist. Now if you want to call yourself something else, that is perfectly fine. None the less, unless you believe it, you are not a theist.
Same goes for gnosticism. You either claim to know or you don't. If you don't claim to know you can't then say but I don't claim not to know. You either do your you don't.
The difficulty, and where I feel this is important, is that claims of existence are by their nature unfalsifiable. Take the statement "fairies exist." Now you cannot prove that fairies don't exist anywhere in the Cosmos. However, currently we don't have any good evidence that they do exist. At some point we might have proof they exist, but we will never be able to prove that they don't or cannot exist. Now the question is do you believe they exist? I'm guessing you don't.
It's the same proposition for god/s, dragons, unicorns, people, gravity, and anything else you can claim exists. The difference is we have proof of things like people and gravity existing and no good proof for god/s, dragons, or unicorns.
This is why I think god claims are ridiculous, because we can make anything up and claim it exists and nobody will ever be able to falsify that claim. But just because you can't disprove something doesn't add an ounce of truth to the claim.
Why it's important to understand the difference is that people act on their beliefs based on what they claim to know. And this is how people can justify burning witches; racism; slavery; and a lot of other horrible things based on unsubstantiated beliefs.
What I don't like about the term agnostic has nothing to do with those who call themselves that, but how it gets used against those who don't believe. Because it's how religions use the term to make the claim that belief and disbelief are on equal footing because you don't know for sure either way. When in fact they;re not. Religions are making claims to know god/s and what they want us to do, and what will happen to us if they don't, as where atheists are just saying "I don't believe you." Atheists aren't making the claim so they don't have burden to prove it false. Theist are responsible for proving their claim is true, otherwise how do we know they didn't just make it up. However, if you're a theist who doesn't claim to know for sure if there is a god/s and what they may or may not want or do and generally have a live and let live policy for others then I don't have a problem with you. I just think you believe for bad reasons.
I think the confusion here is that atheism gets branded as if we are claiming there are no god/s, when that is not the case for most atheists. And for those that claim that, that is something they would have to prove, and you can't definitively prove a negative.
Thanks again for the post, it was very thought provoking.
Thomas Henry Huxley grandsons include Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World and Doors of Perception) and his brother Julian Huxley (an evolutionist, and the first director of UNESCO), and Nobel laureate physiologist Andrew Huxley.
It is appropiate the god in the Brave New World was Henry Ford.
This was too nice to be a rant IMHO, more like an overture or something of that sort.
I like simplicity, and it is really simple to look at the prefix and root words.
a- means without
-gnostic comes from the word gnosis, meaning knowledge.
-theism is the belief in a god or gods
Simply an agnostic knows of no gods (but might believe, given proof, or as pointed out might believe but not "KNOW" God) while an atheist believes there is(are) no god(s). That lines up with the definition that Webster so kindly published.
I agree fully. In my late 20s, 1974, I was in Bible College and later a minister. I found the same thing regarding the terms. I have been an agnostic since my early 50s. I went from a right wing bible fundamentalist to a spiritual theist to an agnostic liberal over about 27 years. What a trip. And without drugs.